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.

Evo and the MAS-IPSP candidates

On a baseline level, it’s reasonable to assume a close connection between Evo Morales and the binomio of candidates on the ballot for the party he led for nearly two decades. Luis Arce Catacora and 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. Unlike many politicians within the MAS-IPSP neither publicly broke with Morales during his presidency, nor did either openly seek to replace him as leader of the party.

On January 19 and 20, the party undertook its selection process for candidates in new elections in a gathering in Argentina of both the party and the Pact of Unity, the alliance of indigenous organizations that founded it. Reportedly, the Pact advocated for Choquehuanca as its preferred presidential candidate, with Chapare cocalero leader Andrónico Rodríguez as potential vice president. Ultimately, however, Evo Morales remained the decisive force in the meeting, and it was he who narrated the strengths and weaknesses of the potential nominees to the public. He advocated for Arce as an architect of economic prosperity and employment: “Arce is the the guarantee of the diversification of the productive apparatus,” Morales declared. On the other hand, Choquehuanca would symbolize the indigenous presences in governement, joining Arce in a “combination between comrades of the city and of the country.” Defending the decision on Twitter, Morales cited (unscientific) online polls showing Arce leading rivals:

Some leaders within the MAS-IPSP were never invited to Argentina and were left out of the “high-level meeting” to choose a candidate, notably Senate President Eva Copa. Other political forces within the Pact of Unity bristled at their nomination being bypassed by Morales. Back in Bolivia the pact and several of its senior leadership stood by their proposal for a Choquehuanca/Rodríguez ticket, while the Central Obrera Bolivian labor confederation supported Choquehuanca and miners’ union leader Orlando Gutiérrez.

All these forces gathered for a pivotal summit in El Alto to consider replacing Arce at the top of the ticket. Choquehuanca offered a wan, noncommittal interview: “I don’t ask for anything. … All of this will be analyzed here. … We will not permit them to divide us.”

Inside, Choquehuanca had to talk down the movement leaders calling for him to lead the ticket, and his speech boiled down to matters of raw political strategy: allow those who control the party to choose the top of the ticket, but choose our own deputies and senators. Besides, he argued, Arce was a good candidate, Andrónico Rodríguez is still young and lacks experience, and there was no time before a May 3 election for division in the party. “If we say that [our choice for the presidential ticket] must be respected, we will be fighting amongst ourselves. We would be stubborn and then not have our candidates for deputies and senators. We would not go into the elections and the [political] instrument would die there, and the right would govern.”

At the urging of their preferred candidate, the mass movements stood down. But they would expect more clarity about the future place of Morales and other former ministers before the campaign was over.

Demands from the base during the campaign

According to the candidates themselves, the grassroots base of the the MAS-IPSP was preoccupied with the question of Morales’ leadership and the possibility of his returning. And the message they had for the candidates was clear. Here, their perspectives are quoted at length on the issues surrounding the former president and his closest advisors, his so-called entorno (literally, “surroundings”).

For the Vice Presidential candidate, David Choquehuanca, this entorno should not return to the MAS and President Morales should defend himself in the courts if the accusations against him are proven. …

“We, including brother Luis [Arce], have been in various places and in all the meetings; I don’t know, if we had 20 meetings, we were told this in 19. They told us that the ministers of the prior administration should not return.”

“They cannot continue to be ministers, they cannot continue as ministers. And everywhere—the miners, the middle class, and everyone—they told this to us,” [Choquehuanca] mentioned.

The ex-foreign minister stated that “the grassroots base complained” that there had been arrogance and self-importance, “there was abuse, the comrades told us.”

Asked about the role that ex-president Morales will have if the MAS wins the election, Choquehuanca said that [the new government] will obey “the people, and not [certain] persons.”He said, “We are going to give opportunity to the new generations” and that now begins “a new stage in the process of change, a second stage” that—he assured—will be different than the last.

He admitted that various errors had been committed, but in the new administration those failings will be rectified.

With regard to the denunciations against Morales for statutory rape [estupro], he said that, if there is proof, Morales will have to submit to justice and he said he does not know how many children the former president had during his government.

“I think that he [Evo Morales] has more than the two [children he publicly recognizes], it is possible that he has not recognized them. … I don’t know how many women he will have had [during his term].I cannot say ‘so many women’, but that there have been some. I have said there there is machismo, and that we have to struggle against it.” said [Choquehuanca] in an interview with Radio Deseo.

At the same time, Arce Catacora has signaled that, should they win the elections, they will provide safe conduct passes to the seven former authorities who remain in the Mexican Embassy residence in [La Paz].

“We are going to give them the safe-conduct passes they have asked for, what the current government should have done a long time ago. It is a simple safe-conduct to leave the country, that is what those who are there in the Mexican Embassy to Bolivia are asking for,” Arce declared in an interview with Erbol. […]

With regard to the [charges and] denunciations against the former president, he said that Morales must respond before the courts if there is proof.

“Futuro de Evo y exministros ponen en aprietos a Arce y Choquehuanca.” Los Tiempos, September 25, 2020. https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/pais/20200925/futuro-evo-exministros-ponen-aprietos-arce-choquehuanca.

I quote at such length because there are very few ways to see into the “nineteen out of twenty” closed door meetings that Choquehuanca speaks of, where grassroots organizers reported the abuse of power and demanded assurances that the former government will not return. To share the striking fact that the MAS-IPSP candidates are speaking of deposed ministers as on their way to exile, and potentially returning to serve in their government. To show that Arce and Choquehuanca’s commitment to set themselves apart from Evo Morales was part of their campaign, not a clarification after the fact. And to illustrate that MAS-IPSP leader have been taking the charges of sexual misconduct against Morales seriously, rather than framing them as an invention of the Bolivian right wing.

This is not to say that Arce’s televised message has focused on these issues. As this interview shows, he is laser focused on the economy and employment, but the candidates’ extensive travel schedule was directed to reactivating the party’s voter base, something they apppear to have accomplished in massive numbers.

Speaking of renewal

“We are going to govern listening to the people, and the people have asked us in meetings that [Evo Morales’] entorno cannot come back. … The entorno will not come back, we will be a government of young people, we must give ourselves opportunity with new people,” Choqehuanca said in September, transforming what could have been an internal criticism into a hopeful slogan for the future.

Besides, he explained, that same entorno had pushed him away from the center of power: “It’s not that I took my distance, but rather that there was an entorno that wished to distance me, but they didn’t succeed in distancing me. I am part of the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People [the original, grassroots name of the MAS-IPSP], and part of my life is in the IPSP. And so I have to take care that the political instrument is not divided, is not robbed of its virtue, that it does not lose its originality, that it does not become a traditional [political] party.”

Choquehuanca speaks the language of what I call organic grassroots ethics, which obliges leaders to listen to the grassroots base, face them, and carry out their wishes. The political innovation at the founding of the MAS-IPSP was to bring this ethic from grassroots organizations into the political sphere. From the organic point of view, politics is by nature a realm of unaccountable political parties, led by self-advancing, individualist politicians who corrupt local leaders to act like them. Hence the challenge: to be in that political world, but remain bound to the organic sphere one serves the community rather than oneself, where one shares power rather than concentrates it, where leadership is rotated rather than clung to. Organic grassroots ethics provides a language to critique leaders as corrupt or co-opted, and to renew them through replacement.

After the electoral victory

Since Sunday’s overwhelming electoral victory, voices across the MAS-IPSP leadership have joined their voices to this chorus, before both foreign and domestic audiences. Notable examples include:

  • Luis Arce Catacora’s victory speech on October 19: “We are going to work and we are going to re-take the wheel of our process of change without hatred, learning and overcoming our errors as the Movement Towards Socialism. [Vamos a trabajar y vamos a reconducir nuestro proceso de cambio sin odios, aprendiendo y superando nuestros errores como Movimiento Al Socialismo].”
  • Senate President Eva Copa, according to Erbol’s paraphrase, held that this is rather the moment for the MAS to take a bath of humility, fix its errors, and present a renewed government without taking into account the ex-ministers of Evo Morales. “We do not believe that this is the adequate moment [for Morales to return]; he has matters to resolve still. But we, headed by Luis Arce and as the [Plurinational Legislative] Assembly have work to complete.”
  • Chamber of Deputies President Sergio Choque Siñani, according to his official tweet “affirmed that the renewal of political leaders injected the confidence to achieve the victory of the MAS-IPSP.” In further comments (see video), he too affirmed that Arce and Choquehuanca now lead the party and Evo Morales will have to focus on the legal processes he faces when he returns. The electoral result was one that “Evo sought out very much, of 53%, and it was done without needing to count on him. We believe that the leadership that has been growing within the MAS… this is the fruit of that, as the people have demonstrated through their support.”

Of course, all the temptations of concentrated power, all the logics of political competition in the parliamentary and electoral arenas remain. Arce and Choquehuanca have an unexpected opportunity for radical renewal, but they also will face internal rivalries and the challenges of maintaining and projecting power in the legislature and in upcoming regional elections. They will staff an immense state apparatus, with the capacity to distribute funds towards political allies and away from opponents, and there will be many hands with renewed or first-time access to supervising public projects and spending public funds. And they will do all this amid a nearly unprecedented set of national challenges, beginning with the pandemic and global economic crisis.

There is a compelling argument that this concentration of power itself is the real threat to progressive change, but the “next stage” of plurinational socialist rule in Bolivia will test the possibility that a revolution of values can stop power from corrupting long enough to use it for good.

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