We dumped Trump. But now our struggles will feel harder

The playing field for changing American political life is about to shift dramatically.

If your agenda has included both resisting Trump and building a just, sustainable, antiracist, liberated world, you’ve just lived through a dramatic four years where one problem—the president of the United States—probably occupied a lot of your mental space. That space was crammed with a seemingly endless series of moral/political crises, from a sudden travel ban, to the attempted rollback of Obamacare, to racist mass shootings in Pittsburgh and El Paso, to the literal break-up of refugee families before our eyes, to the drastically mishandled COVID pandemic, and in a final burst of sparks both an attempt to grab power despite electoral defeat and a sheaf of last minute executive action, symbolized for me by the leasing of Arctic indigenous land to oil companies on January 6, 2021. Alongside all this has been a dumpster fire of a presidency marked by petty corruption, vindictiveness, foreign entanglements, and the endless, surreal production of belligerent tweets and speech.

Up til now, America has had a 2016 problem. How to manage the consequences of troubling (to say the least) president elected without even a plurality of votes, who showed no signs of seeking broaden that coalition, but instead focused on using the available levers of power to advance corporate power, a narrow-minded religious vision he evidently had little faith in, an authoritarian vision of state that attracted him greatly, and the nativist, racist, and antiqueer agendas that had hidden behind codewords and euphemisms for decades. The tools for dealing with that problem ranged from mass street protest to fights in the courts, but their leading edge was an electoral effort that reclaimed one house of Congress in 2018 (with an extraordinary 8% vote margin) and the White House in 2020 (with a more modest 4.4% vote margin). Despite temporary and quasi-permanent structural barriers to one-person/one-vote democracy—respectively, redistricting and disenfranchisment, and the Senate and Electoral College—this effort succeeded.

But as I said, the problem is about to change. And that change is going to be disorienting for many of us who have nothing but glee over the end of the Trump presidency.

I’m writing here to keep us—those who want more than a “return to normal”—oriented as the political world takes an Inception-like 90-degree turn and the forces of gravity seem to turn against us.

The compass I keep in the back of my mind is this: think about the scale of the problem you are confronting. How deep does it go? How far back in history are its origin points? How wicked in the problem, and what other problems are clustered around the same causes?

It helps that my adult political life began around the time of the Seattle global justice/antiglobalization protetss against the World Trade Organization. Adbusters magazine, one of the creative epicenters of that mobilization, circulated the image shown here. In the center is the kind of error message produced by 20th century Apple Macs when they crashed, with the text “System Error—Type 1945 (progress).” The end of World War II also marked the foundation of the global economy, through the World Trade Organization (then, the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It was the handoff point from a war-time, state-organized economy to the era in which mass consumerism would accompany continuing militarism. And it was the debut of a United States-led global order incorporating the majority of countries into sometimes colonial and sometimes dictatorial, but self-branded “free” world.

In Seattle, we were confronting a process that was “writing the constitution for a single global economy,” as WTO head Renato Ruggiero put it, written behind close doors in the interest of corporate power. We were also confronting a process endorsed by both political parties. It was the culmination of a neoliberal vision of globalization, championed as much by Clinton’s New Democrats as by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. (The Democratic party assumed that Seattle, a city then much more identified with Boeing than big tech, would be the perfect showplace for the debut of globalization.) When we surrounded the meetings with nonviolent blockades, a Democratic president, governor, and mayor collaborated in calling in the National Guard, flooding the streets with tear gas, and arresting six hundred demonstrators.

Flash forward three tumultuous years to the authorization of the War on Iraq. Fifty-eight percent of Democratic Senators and 39% of Democratic Representatives joined nearly all Republicans in backing the new war. The global antiwar coalition lacked a partisan home in the United States, but it built on the global justice movement’s transnational ties and experience in taking the streets. The media baptized global public opinion “a second superpower” that was challenging the unilateral US government. Within the United States, though, we never amassed the votes to block the war, but just as in Seattle, our protests gave other countries the space to step away from or denounce the war. Later, Barack Obama made opposition to the Iraq War a core part of his appeal in 2008.

The point is, whether confronting war or globalization, we knew we started from a point of institutional weakness within representative government, but potentially widespread support in the country at large. Protest was our natural arena since congressional votes and court cases would often run against us.

International arrivals as a protest space, SFO. Jan 2017.

The last four years have been different. I could feel this when people protesting the Muslim travel ban flooded airports, along with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. Already in the first week of the Trump presidency, a range of institutional actors were shifting their stances around protest: local officials extended transit hours for people protesting at the airport, technology executives from Google’s Sergey Brin on down were showing up to back the protests, state attorneys general were filing for court injunctions against the ban. An exceptional wave of donations and subscriptions was rising to support advocacy organizations like the ACLU and journalistic outlets like the New York Times.

2017 and 2018 proved to be an experiment in what would happen when a radical faction controls the executive and legislative branch of the US government, but faces opposition from many other institutions, notably bastions of professionals. Journalism, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley were all filled with critical voices. Certain Federal courts issued injunctions limiting executive power. #MeToo emerged, a movement with extraordinarily broad participation and a target on the kinds of harrassment and abuse practiced by the president, but also elite men of all parties and sectors. Speeches by Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes, the not-necessarily-political awards ceremony of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, frontally challenged the president. (These signs reassured me about the parallels to fascist authoritarianism in Europe: Hitler and Mussolini had succeeded in part because of the total moral collapse of major institutions. Ours held up by comparison.)

The broad alliances of the past few years have now done their work, pushing Donald Trump kicking and screaming to the edge of the political stage and to a now-inevitable exit from the White House. But they won’t last into the next round of struggles. Because we will no longer be confronting just 2016 problems. Some of the people we voted for will reinforce the structures of power we aim to dismantle. Some people who joined us in the streets since January 2017 will drift away now that they feel they have an ally in the White House. And some of those who fought with us against Trump will now see our visions as the real problem.

The Black Lives Matter protesters of 2020, perhaps our country’s most widespread protest mobilization, knew this already. As Trump has never stopped reminding us, these protests usually take place in “Democrat cities.” They face off with a bipartisan consensus around mass incarceration and militarizing the police—System Error Type 1969 (New Jim Crow)—and require uprooting the systemic racism built into our country the beginning. Call it System Error Type 1619. Active movements call into question settler colonialism (Type 1492). As disappointing Biden appointments come in, we will be reminded of our other long-term struggles against unwarranted corporate power, wealth inequality, mindless consumerism and its destruction of the planet. All of these will require acting beyond political parties and mainstream institutions, as well as leveraging them where we can.

One more thing: it’s not the case that the older a systemic problem is, the harder it is to fight. We’ve lived through extraordinary changes to order of gender, sex, and sexuality—systems who symbolic origins are lost to time and unidentifiable with a familiar date—in the past fifty and the past fifteen years. Fights that were once only imaginable in the streets and in our own families became fights in the courts and eventually were embraced by the lighting of the White House. Successful movements transform fundamental shifts into collective common sense. Let’s keep our eyes on horizon as the world shifts around us.

Top image by Riske Mustamu from Pixabay

How the Arce/Choquehuanca ticket reclaimed the pre-2016 Morales majority

On October 18, 2020, Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People (MAS-IPSP) party roared back into a majority at the ballot box, winning a solid 55.11% of the vote and nearly doubling its nearest rival, Carlos Mesa’s Citizen Community (CC)’s 28.83%. The presidential ticket of Luis Arce Catacora and David Choquehuanca easily surpassed the simple-majority threshold for avoiding a runoff vote, and had an ample 26.28% margin of victory. Their victory came just 364 days after the disappointing performance of Evo Morales, who garnered 47.08% with a 10.57% margin over Mesa. It is all the more impressive since Arce and Choquehuanca campaigned without the benefits of incumbency and under the cloud of political persecution imposed by the temporary government of far-right interim president Jeanine Áñez.

This post takes a quantitative look at which parties gained and lost votes between these two elections and how the MAS-IPSP majority has evolved in size and geography since 2005. In the past year, the most consequential shift was missed by the headlines: the collapse in support for third-party candidate Chi Hyun Chung. I will also consider what these shifts reveal about Evo Morales’ second-round chances in 2019 (much better than expected), and Carlos Mesa’s fateful decision not to negotiate a prompt second round. A year ago, I looked at where and how Evo Morales lost his majority in 2016 and 2019; in the final section, I extend that analysis and see where Arce and Choquehuanca gained back supporters.

I draw on a statistical analysis of votes shifts by Diego Aliaga and colleagues, municipality-level vote analysis by Arián Laguna, citing and sometimes questioning their conclusions, and vote data from the Plurinational Election Organ (2019|2020). The analysis from 2019 to 2020 is simplified by the fact that nearly equal numbers of valid votes were cast in the two elections, meaning that we can work with raw vote counts as well as vote shares.

Read More »

NACLA/NYU panel on the Bolivian election and challenges to come — 17 November 2020

The North American Congress on Latin America and New York University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies hosted me on a panel on the 2020 Bolivian elections and the challenges that await the MAS-IPSP government, on Tuesday, November 17. The video is online here.

Bolivia’s Electoral Victory: What Challenges Lie Ahead For MAS?

Read More »

President Luis Arce’s economic model (and its limits)

Luis Arce Catacora, the economic architect of the Movement Towards Socialism during Evo Morales’ fourteen-year presidency, will take power today as Bolivia’s sixty-seventh president. Arce and incoming Vice President] David Choquehuanca were two of the longest-serving ministers in Evo’s cabinet (both from 2006 to 2017) and they stood at the core, respectively, of the party’s socialist and plurinational projects during those years.

When the Morales government came to power, it was haunted by the spectre of economic failure under the last center-left government, the 1982 to 1985 UDP government of Hernán Siles Zuazo. Morales turned to Arce, an economist who had worked in the Bolivian Central Bank since 1987, to lead his economic policy. Arce faced an incredible challenge: to thread the needle between popular demands for redistribution and an international credit market wary of leftist populism.

The markets were already trembling: Morales was already a bogeyman of demagogic populism. He was vilified by American diplomats for the coca leaf’s connection to narcotics and stereotyped domestically as an uninformed peasant ignorant of diplomatic protocol and economic realities. Moreover, Morales proposed a “21st century socialism” as his economic project. Everything that was an anathema to neoliberal technocrats seemed to be packaged together.

And yet, the new Morales government was far from ignorant of global economic or political realities. It still needed foreign credit, still lived in a hemisphere politically and militarily dominated by the United States, and still sought international investment. The spectre of dangerous populism, and the historical shadow of the 1982–86 hyperinflation, threatened all of those relationships. The Bolivian government could not afford to be downgraded in international bond markets, isolated like a new Cuba, or spurned by transnational corporate investors. And so, the government sent clear signals to global powers about just what its brand of populism would entail.

One unlikely emissary was Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a Marxist intellectual and former guerrilla, who spoke at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2006. “We are not,” the Vice President pledged, “a populist government with easily opened pockets and cheap promises.” He highlighted the government’s “austerity” with its officials, who would no longer put money in offshore accounts (unlike their notoriously corrupt predecessors), and its “responsible management of macroeconomics.” This was Arce’s portfolio.

Read More »

Orlando Gutiérrez, mining union leader and MAS-IPSP rising star, dies after fatal post-election injury

Orlando Gutiérrez Luna, executive secretary of Bolivia’s celebrated miners’ union, the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) has died after suffering a severe assault on October 21, shortly after the electoral victory of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS-IPSP) party. A senior union leader, a potential MAS-IPSP senate candidate for La Paz (until his candidacy was refused) by electoral authorities, and reportedly the planned Minister of Mining under the incoming Arce government, Gutiérrez was the target of numerous death threats. During a time of protests against the MAS-IPSP election victory, Gutiérrez was badly beaten, though his family and comrades have not disclosed any major details of the attack.

The FSTMB responded to the attack with a statement saying:

“This grave attack, executed as a form of vengeance, perpetrated by the fascist right, by the so-called ‘pititas,’ [by] platforms, contracting ‘hired killers’ and ‘street thugs’ to assassinate the executive of the FSTMB for the mere act of speaking the truth; but, thanks to God, at this moment, despite this attempted homicide, he remains alive.” (FSTMB, 23 Oct 2020)

** The FSTMB leadership has distanced itself from this allegation; see update below **

Gutiérrez was treated at the Cemes clinic and visited by comrades. He reportedly suffered trauma to the parietal lobe of his brain.

His death was reported on October 28, but responsibility for it remains vague and unconfirmed. The Departmental Prosecutor of La Paz opened a homicide investigation later in the day. Reportedly, prior attempts to access him by investigators were rebuffed. The Defensoría del Pueblo has called for investigation and clarification of the circumstances of the attack on Gutiérrez.

Given the imminent transfer of power to a MAS-IPSP national government on November 8, the threats from political opponents against him, and the recent investigations of him for organizing pro-election blockades in July and August, it is perhaps not shocking that Gutiérrez’s comrades worked to delay an investigation. But the lack of any detailed narrative makes it impossible to verify their allegations of responsibility for his death.

Regardless of the circumstances of his death, the 36-year-old union leader is being remembered for his remarkable political leadership, his oratory on behalf of both the FSTMB union and the MAS-IPSP, and his calls for a time of peace following Bolivia’s traumatic last year.

Read More »

MAS-IPSP leaders, celebrating victory, pledge to turn the page from Evo Morales

Mr. Arce has positioned himself as a transition candidate, vowing to carry on Mr. Morales’s legacy, while training younger leaders from his party to take the reins.

“We are MAS 2.0,” he said in an interview shortly before the election.

He added that Mr. Morales would have no role in his government.

Turkewitz, Julie. “Evo Morales Is Out. His Socialist Project Lives On.” The New York Times, October 19, 2020, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/world/americas/morales-arce-bolivia-election.html.

At the end of a long Election Day evening, Luis Arce Catacora stepped forward to claim victory in Bolivia’s presidential elections. Two coinciding preliminary counts coincided in estimating he had a 20-point advantage in the contest, nearly double his best pre-election polls and the 10% margin he needed to avoid a runoff. In all likelihood, Arce and vice presidential candidate David Choquehuanca will garner an absolute majority of valid votes. Many are rightly viewing their victory as a vindication for Bolivia’s largest political party and a demonstration of the continued power of its grassroots base. The election campaign was conducted under the shadow of an anti-MAS-IPSP government and a punishing global pandemic, with many of the party’s leaders in jail or exiled, by far the most adverse circumstances the party had faced since at least 2002.

Arce and Choquehuanca appear to have gained rather than lost electoral ground since the October 2019 general election, and likely even more since the nationwide protest wave that followed. Voters and political organizations that abandoned the MAS-IPSP ticket in 2019 returned to it in significant numbers, largely in the highland departments of La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí, as well as central Chuquisaca. It should be clear to all that Arce/Choquehuanca led a more successful bid than did forcibly exiled president Evo Morales (nominally their “campaign chief” from Argentina). If you listen closely to their statements before and after the election, it becomes apparent that they won in substantial part by keeping the former president at a distance and promising a new era in socialist government, free of the mistakes of the past.

In a global environment in which many are eager to read the election as a referendum on Evo Morales, I am writing here to highlight just how hard the MAS-IPSP leadership of 2020 is working (and has worked) to separate itself from its former leader, and why that separation may have endeared it to a sometimes disenchanted electorate and grassroots base.

Read More »

Bolivian legislature investigation: All deaths in Sacaba and Senkata traceable to security forces’ weapons

A months-long investigation by the Bolivian legislature of killings during last year’s political crisis has found that the twenty gunshot victims in Sacaba (November 15) and Sacaba (November 19) were all killed by weapons used exclusively by Bolivia’s military or police forces. The commission, led by Deputy Víctor Borda, will make its formal report on Monday, October 26, but issued advance statements to the press today.

Before the dust had settled in either massacre, the interim government of Jeanine Áñez issued blanket denials of any responsibility for the shootings of scores of protesters before hundreds of witnesses including members of the press. Those denials were buttressed by claims that protesters shot one another, that bullet wounds were in the back (and therefore “must” have been from the protesters’ side), and that the weapons involve did not correspond to military weapons. Defense Minister Luis Fernando López claimed, “In November, in the worst epoch of our democracy, the Armed Forces did not fire a single cartridge; not one death is due to the Police or the Armed Forces.” The legislative commission now rejects all these points, which had always strained credibility.

Its report is based on visits to the massacre sides, reports from prosecutors and the forensic institute, and over 150 witness declarations. Among its conclusions disclosed today by Borda: “We have not received a single forensic medical certificate from any injured police officer or soldier.” Borda further identified three calibers of ammunition fired: 5.5mm used in light weapons given to officers, but not soldiers, of the Armed Forces, 7.62mm used in automatic weapons by the military, and 22 caliber used by the police.

Borda signalled that the report will also consider deaths in La Paz, Montero, and Betanzos during the 2019 crisis.

Photo above: Sacaba clashes as viewed from behind the military lines (AFP).

David Choquehuanca & plurinational Bolivia’s grassroots approach to diplomacy

With David Choquehuanca elected as Bolivia’s next vice president, I share here portions of an excised chapter from the manuscript of The Sovereign Street profiling Choquehuanca and the unique, bottom-up diplomacy he led as Foreign Minister from 2006 to 2017.

The New Face of Diplomacy

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca was the first indigenous person to occupy his office, located on the corner of La Paz’s Plaza Murillo. The room was charged with an elite identity; by tradition the Foreign Minister’s chair had long been reserved for the country’s most illustrious individuals, invariably elite in their self-presentation. He spent two decades supporting grassroots indigenous movements—particularly the campesino confederation CSUTCB—before becoming a bedrock force within the Morales cabinet. His friendship with Morales stretches back to the 1980s; both men were early advocates for “the Political Instrument” that was to become the MAS–IPSP.[1] Only Choquehuanca, Finance Minister Luis Arce, and Vice President García Linera—an island of stability at the core of the cabinet—kept their offices for the first decade of Morales’ presidency.[2] Within the cabinet, Choquehuanca is the leading government voice of pachamamismo, a vision of spiritual transformation centered on the recovery of indigenous identity through a new ethical and ecological paradigm. His pachamamismo is carefully balanced by the industrializing developmentalism of Arce and García Linera, but has free rein within the Foreign Ministry.

Choquehuanca had served as national coordinator for Programa Nina (“fire” in Aymara), providing leadership trainings to the five organizations of the Pact of Unity, and his speeches incorporate a bit of the air of a teacher, regularly introducing words or phrases in Bolivia’s indigenous languages and providing a gloss that illustrates his points. When he was invited by Morales to join his cabinet just days before the inauguration, he had to give up his ticket to the World Social Forum in Caracas and make and shift to the other side of the line dividing movement and state. Fearing “I would be just one more piece of that system,” he pledged to himself to “be there without being there.”[3] Convinced he wouldn’t last in the job, he started off aloof: “The first year I had no desire to know anything,—‘For what?,’ I would say—I rebelled.” Then he threw himself into the work presiding over a very active period in Bolivia’s international diplomacy.[4] His ministry made Bolivia a well-known voice at the United Nations, sent him to present spiritual ideas of Vivir Bien (see box) and Mother Earth in international fora, and kept an open door to the grassroots left.

Choquehuanca describes himself as “in permanent meeting” with grassroots movements, reeling off district-level meetings he attended in a 2009 interview.[5] Esteban Ticona,[6] an anthropologist of Aymara background and radical public intellectual, took leadership in the Diplomatic Academy, offering master’s degrees in international relations to an unprecedentedly diverse corps of future diplomats.[7] Diplomacy, that most elite and creole-identified of Bolivian government professions, was being transformed. Just as in previous generation of revolutionary governments,[8] indigenous and grassroots movements have brought their own agendas into government offices. They coordinated with the Bolivian Foreign Ministry to place the Bolivian state at the forefront of long-running international campaigns on indigenous rights, climate, and water. The novel, but quite visible, role of social movements in Bolivian (and regional) diplomacy came to be known as “diplomacy of the peoples,” a phrase that suggests that people-to-people relations are as important as state-to-state ones, while quietly implying that multiple peoples live within one state.

Led by Choquehuanca, and with frequent prominent appearances by Evo Morales, Bolivian diplomacy backed a visionary agenda at the United Nations. It helped secure the 2007 passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which had languished in committee for twelve years. A series of initiatives introduced the Andean concept of Pachamama, the planet as a living being, into international diplomacy.[9] In so doing, Bolivia’s representatives broke a UN taboo on religious declarations, one deeply rooted in the United Nations’ secular modernizing origins. Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Pablo Solón shepherded UN recognition of the right to water and sanitation through the General Assembly, culminating in a 2010 resolution.[10]

Read More »

Two unofficial counts show MAS-IPSP winning dramatic first-round victory in Bolivian election

Shortly after Luis Arce Catacora confidently predicted his own victory, two major polling firms released their counts of today’s election, both of which projected a 20% margin of victory for the Movement Towards Socialism in an historic election. The current projected margin doubles the largest advantage (10%) estimated by any pre-election poll and is far more than needed for Arce to avoid a runoff. Indeed, they project Arce’s party winning a simple majority of all votes, something it has done in three prior national elections and which no other political party has done since the 1960s.

While data are preliminary, interim president Jeanine Áñez has congratulated her political opponents on their apparent victory:

Second-place finisher Carlos Mesa’s campaign retired from public appearances early in the night and he has not commented on the late-night vote estimates online. Technically the election is his to concede, and that might only come once the official results resemble the unofficial ones.

Read More »

Beyond the ballot: Where Bolivia’s main political forces stand after a turbulent year

Bolivians go to the polls on Sunday, October 18, in the long-awaiting re-run of the country’s disputed October 2019 general election. Three weeks of opposition protests, alleging that electoral fraud had provided incumbent president Evo Morales the 10% margin required to avoid a run-off, combined with a nationwide police mutiny to prompt his resignation and flight into exile. While unusually violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Morales led to five deaths prior to his overthrow, the next ten days were even bloodier: 33 people died, at least 25 of them at the hands of the police and military.

The displacement of Evo Morales, the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s history and the winner of three prior elections, from power was a dramatic shift. At the time I laid out the political panorama like this:

In this post, I check in on those four political forces with an emphasis on looking beyond their electoral chances. (For a detailed look at the political parties’ standing in the polls, see: Luis Arce (MAS) leads polls heading into Bolivia’s election… but may struggle to prevent a runoff.)

Read More »