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.

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 statement 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.

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 and 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.

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]

Finally, the Bolivian government took a principled stand on climate change at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 2009 summit in Copenhagen, demanding steeper reductions in global North emissions and opposing carbon-trading schemes. This summit of 115 world leaders was met by some 50,000 activists, many of them participating in the Klimaforum countersummit or credentialed as advocates pressuring the summit. The Bolivian delegation found itself participating in both ways, backing protests outside even as its fiery critiques on the summit floor made international headlines. President Morales spent an entire day with the activists at Klimaforum and pledged to protesters that, “It is my duty to take our message to the heads of state here.”[11] Bolivia’s delegation joined hundreds of civil society representatives in a walkout from within the conference center, led by the indigenous people’s caucus.[12] From water to climate to indigenous rights, movement positions that had long held outsider status were suddenly represented by a state and its diplomatic apparatus. “In truth I felt more comfortable with civil society than inside, our perception is that there was more common sense,” reflected Ambassador Angelica Navarro, who led the country’s delegation. “If we’re going to move forward, the real problems of real people need to get in to the negotiations.”[13] This view explains the ambition of Bolivia’s popular diplomacy, and how it could take the risky step of opening its doors to the broader public.

Vivir Bien The concept of Vivir Bien encompasses various ideals of indigeneity—complementarity, interaction with the land, sufficiency—and was developed within the process of indigenous cultural recovery in the 1990s and 2000s. Indigenous intellectuals used the Quechua and Aymara terms Sumak Kawsay and Suma Qamaña as poles around which to articulate an decolonial alternative to capitalist development.[14] Bolivia’s constitutional adoption of the term (in Article 8 of the 2009 Constitution), in parallel with Ecuador’s embrace of Buen Vivir, has spurred along international scholarly and activist conversations attempting to elaborate on the meaning of the term.[15]

To introduce the concept, an advocate of Vivir Bien will usually contrast it with the Western desire to live better than others: “To exploit one’s neighbor is not to live well.” said Minister Choquehuanca in at the 2010 Indigenous Caucus. “Possibly, exploiting one’s neighbor will permit you to live better [vivir mejor]. But we don’t seek that. What we seek is to live well.”[16] Westerners accumulate wealth, whereas those who live well have culture, community, and an interactive relationship with nature. It is an alternative “civilizational and cultural model,” the Pact of Unity explained in their draft Mother Earth Law: “alternative to capitalism, to modernity, and to development.”[17]

Plurinational Diplomacy

In his first address to the UN General Assembly, given in 2006, Evo Morales arrived in his signature style, wearing a black sweater inlaid with Andean weaving patterns and bearing coca leaves, to declare himself “here to represent my people, my homeland of Bolivia, and especially the indigenous movement.”[18] The redefinition of the Bolivian state as an indigenous space was demanded by the grassroots left and performed—in the most literal sense—on the domestic and world stage by its president. From that first speech on, the Bolivian government took up the diplomatic agenda of the transnational indigenous movement, which included the demand for indigenous self-determination and a new relationship with the planet, addressed as Mother Earth or Pachamama. In turn, the Morales administration fashioned its own indigenous identity around this role of representing the arrival of long-suppressed indigeneity onto the world stage.

But, except perhaps at the United Nations, Morales was never the lone symbol of Bolivia’s indigeneity. In essence, plurinational politics requires a plural performance that fills the space of politics with cultural diversity. Inside the legislature, the Constituent Assembly, and the Cabinet, grassroots leaders wore their ethnically distinct polleras and sweaters, bowler hats and miners’ helmets. Surrounding the state, metaphorically and sometimes literally, were vast gatherings of thousands of movement participants, organized by sector and full of demands. On the streets, the vigils and marches that defended the Constituent Assembly and demanded the new Constitution represented this diversity. The creation and defense of the Constituent Assembly had brought into being a new kind of social movement space, one authorized by the state but gathering multiple voices.

David Choquehuanca’s new approach to diplomacy, which de-centers the state as the sole actor in international relations, offered movements the opportunity to pursue their international agenda under an official aegis. Participants called this plural statecraft on the international stage “the diplomacy of the peoples [diplomacia de los pueblos].” Bolivian diplomats worked with transnational environmental, indigenous, and other grassroots movements and mobilized Bolivians by the hundreds and sometimes thousands into the privileged world of international diplomacy. Starting with the UN visit, diplomacy also became the venue for the Morales government to demonstrate its ethical grounding in left and indigenous causes. Several of Bolivia’s initiatives became a co-production of the Morales government and social movements. The government sought grassroots allies to amplify its voice on regional integration, environmental policy, and indigenous rights. If large state-sponsored summits were confronted by activist counter-summits in much of the world, these two elements shaded into one another in Bolivia.

Like the “exercise[s] in MNR showmanship” after the 1952 Revolution, these acts provided a veneer of unified purpose to the highly contentious relationships between the government and grassroots movements. While the state sponsored these events, it did not fully control them.  By asserting that spaces and practices that were traditionally the prerogative of the state now belong to “the peoples,” the Morales administration opened the door for contests over the direction of the government to be expressed in official gatherings. Shared language around indigeneity would not be enough to hide the growing tensions and fractures accumulating beneath the surface.

Just as social movements had used the Constituent Assembly to advance their agendas, they brought their multiple and, at times, conflicting agendas to plurinational diplomatic spaces. Inside these events, tensions between movements and the state were accumulating. Above all, the alternative economic and ecological vision championed by the global indigenous movement clashed with the more traditional leftism that guides Morales’ domestic policies. Morales could speak, as he did at the United Nations, of both “recovering our natural resources” and “living in harmony with Mother Earth,” and for years Morales government presented itself as the champion of both visions. Movements could then leverage the government’s celebration of its indigenous values to articulate their own claims.

La Paz 2010: The Indigenous Agenda at Work in Bolivian Diplomacy

The five indigenous organizations of the Pact of Unity acting as co-hosts for the hemispheric indigenous caucus.

After shepherding the indigenous rights declaration to passage, Bolivian diplomats remained active on the issue within the UN system. In March 2010, Bolivia became the first Latin American country to host preparatory meetings for the annual UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Indigenous campaigners worldwide have developed a tradition of meeting among themselves in an all-indigenous caucus within a wide variety of settings, while UN bodies structure their work with inter-state preparatory meetings. Something of a hybrid construction itself, plurinational Bolivia found itself hosting both types of meetings at once. The government and the five indigenous organizations in the Pact of Unity co-hosted Permanent Forum officials and Latin America indigenous activists in an Indigenous Caucus, with Andean, Amazonian, and Central American indigenous alliances as co-sponsors. The four-day session began in the small town of Huarina on the Lake Titicaca coast and then moved to central La Paz. The closed gathering in a lakeside Aymara town was a space for lateral discussions among indigenous leaders, while the events in La Paz were used to showcase indigenous issues to diplomats and the press.

What in the past would so often have been a gathering of outsiders took place in the Hall of Honor of the Foreign Ministry. While not exactly luxurious, the building is designed for grandeur, much of its second floor dedicated to meeting halls designed to host foreign dignitaries. The two days in La Paz, much of which I attended, illustrated the substantive and symbolic centrality being built for indigenous people and social movements in state spaces. Leaders of the five indigenous confederations joined David Choquehuanca at the main table, each rising alongside the government to offer welcomes to foreign visitors. “Brothers, This very forum,” Choquehuanca declared, “is an advance. At the highest level, we the indigenous people can be heard.”

The Foreign Minister used the occasion to get the various diplomatic delegations in La Paz to attend a virtual teach-in given by indigenous leaders and international experts. Choquehuanca’s opening speech defined the efforts of both his government and the forum as part of a pachakuti, which he gave the gloss of “a return to equilibrium” among peoples and between humans and nature. Technical experts within the Permanent Forum’s secretariat spoke expansively about the necessity for indigenous voices to intercede in global debates about ecological preservation and the direction of economic life. Transnational indigenous alliances, chiefly the Andean and Amazonian confederations CAOI and COICA,[19] put forward a frontal critique of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) and extractive industrialization. “The practices of the invaders yesterday are today the practices of the transnational companies who … impose on our territories the extraction and looting of natural resources,” they declared in concluding resolution of the Caucus. “States, international banks, and transnational companies cannot, in a unilateral manner, develop megaproject such as IIRSA and REDD, that affect the territories of indigenous peoples.”[20] (The role of Bolivia in sponsoring IIRSA went without comment.) These organizations, veterans of numerous struggles over resources, concentrated on the right to free, prior and informed consent over projects on their territories, while articulating a sweeping critique of both extraction and capitalism. As these positions came together, and as the hosts spoke of a “new paradigm” articulated around Vivir Bien, there was a sense of turning from defensive fights to being a voice in global debates on the direction of humanity. At the closing dinner of the gathering, held incongruously in a La Paz luxury hotel, one Bolivian movement representative noted, “Before, we were always the folklore” in international gatherings. Now, she said, we are making the agenda.


[1] Two versions of Choquehuanca’s recollection of his relationship with Morales and the rise of the MAS-IPSP appear in Svampa et al. (2010) and Quiroz (2015).

[2] Choquehuanca finally stepped down as Foreign Minister in January 2017, turning over the office to fellow Aymara Fernando Huanacuni, a lawyer and specialist in indigenous cosmovision. He became Executive Secretary of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, where he continues the practice of meeting regularly with grassroots movements. Paredes Tamayo, Ivan. “David Choquehuanca: ‘No hay que enojar al pueblo, porque puede patear a perro equivocado’ (interview).” El Deber, March 18, 2018.

[3] Estar sin estar, or ayra (Aymara) was a concept Choquehuanca took from the life of Juan Chocne, a participant in the sixteenth century Andean revolt known as Taki Onqoy. Interview in Svampa et al. (2010:225-226).

[4] Interview in Svampa et al. (2010:225-226).

[5] Interview in Svampa et al. (2010:226).

[6] Ticona (2010:199-211).

[7] See Interview in Svampa et al. (2010:199-211).

[8] See Bjork-James (2013:55-99).

[9] UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2010:3, 17).

[10] The resolution (A/64/292) passed 122–0 with 41 abstentions. While it represents a milestone in a political recognition of the right to water, that recognition remains contested by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom (Worsnip 2010). In legal terms, the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (2002) Comment 15, which declares the right to water to be a legal consequence of the binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has greater force.

[11] Hadden (2015:158).

[12] Reyes (2009).

[13] Huff-Hannon (2010).

[14] Examples of this conversation can be seen in Medina (2006) and Bolivia. Ministerio de Relaciones (2010b, 2010a).

[15] Acosta and Martínez (2009); Gudynas (2009); Radcliffe (2012); Walsh (2010).

[16] Speech at the Ministry of Foreign Relations, La Paz, March 19, 2010.

[17] Csutcb et al. (2010:12).

[18] Morales Ayma (2009b:9).

[19] The Andean Coordination of Indigenous Organizations (Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas; CAOI) and the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica; COICA) are transnational confederations of Andean highland and Amazonian lowland indigenous peoples’ organizations.

[20] “Caucus Indígena Boliviano, Centro y Sud América Para ‘Vivir Bien,’ La Paz, 19 y 20 de Marzo 2010,”

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.

However, there are now coinciding vote analyses by polling organizations CiesMori and Tu Voto Cuenta:

The regional breakdown published by CiesMori shows just how Arce, VP candidate David Choquehuanca, and the MAS-IPSP pulled off this remarkable comeback: they won by regaining back the votes they lost in the west and Chuquisaca between 2014 and 2019. Here’s a preliminary look at the shifts between those three elections.

Comparing the MAS’s showing in 2019 and 2020 against each other and its last majority victory in 2014.

Again, these figures are preliminary. Tu Voto Cuenta’s departmental results are still being posted to Twitter as I write this, and the official count has barely reached 8% of precincts, but Bolivian politics have taken a very dramatic turn tonight.

Moreover, the bet placed by the hard Right in 2019, that claiming the state and using an interim government to target the MAS-IPSP and sometimes also its base for prosecutions and intimidation would cement a post-MAS political future has failed dramatically. Even before tonight’s results, that was already clear for Bolivia’s hard Right as represented by Jeanine Áñez and Luis Camacho. Now it looks to be true for the anti-MAS coalition as a whole.

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.)

1. The Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP): A troubled plurality

Bolivia’s largest political party, the MAS, remains a formidable political force. While Evo Morales and much of his cabinet is in exile (or holed up in friendly embassies in La Paz), the party designated former finance minister Luis Arce Catacora as its standard bearer for the 2020 elections. Arce and his running David Choquehuanca lead the pack of presidential candidates going into Sunday’s vote, obtaining around the same vote share in current polls and Morales won in 2019.

Arce has focused on economic recovery as his key electoral message, a position already foreshadowed by Evo Morales’ alternative state-of-the-nation address on January 22. Unlike Morales, nominally his “campaign chief,” Arce has shown little enthusiasm for re-litigating the 2019 crisis. Instead he freely reels off lists of economic projects and promises a return to expanding employment. In recent weeks, running mate David Choquehuanca has taken a calculated distance from Morales and his closest advisors, an entorno (“surrounding” cluster of advisors) that he characterizes as separating itself from the MAS-IPSP’s grassroots base.

Internal divisions within the MAS-IPSP showed themselves in December and January in the distancing between a so-called ala oprimida (oppressed wing) of legislators who stayed in the country and the leadership in exile. It was Morales and the exiles who chose Arce over rival Choquehuanca to head the ticket. The most visible member of the ala oprimida, Senate President Eva Copa (MAS/El Alto) was left out of the candidate lists for the 2020 election.

The MAS-IPSP took a major joint action with that base in the July–August protest campaign to demand prompt elections. With over 100 points of blockades and participation from labor unions, this was a broader coalition than took to the streets to protest Morales’ ouster November 2019. But while it showed a continuing relationship between the party and many social movements, it also depended on rural municipal governments and may he a poor gauge of the party’s strength. At least some of the protesters felt sidelined by the MAS’ final negotiating position, though the labor union confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana, accepted an intermediate truce until elections are held. Union leaders remain concerned about anti-MAS fraud at the polls.

2. Jeanine Áñez, Luis Camacho, and the Right wing: Controlling the national government wasn’t enough to cement lasting power

Ahead of the October 2019 election, I observed the challenge facing Bolivia’s hard Right wing: “Right-wing politics remains a minority tendency within Bolivia.” In three successive elections, the Santa Cruz-based regionalist movement had captained the opposition to Evo Morales, and was defeated each time. Nonetheless, this same movement rallied massively in late 2019, holding cabildos before and after the election, giving many of their votes to Carlos Mesa, and joining the anti-fraud push in the weeks after the election. Behind the scenes, Cruceño civic leader Luis Fernando Camacho maneuvered in search of police and military allies, either sparking or propelling forward a police mutiny and an officers’ rebellion within the military command. Amid the uncertainty, Camacho flew to La Paz and staged a dramatic entry into the presidential palace (Palacio Quemado) with a Bible in hand, enacting a racist fantasy of civilizing the Indian president through Christianity. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes negotiations maneuvered political unknown Jeanine Áñez into the presidency. Áñez in turn swore in Chapare hotelier Arturo Murillo and retired officer Luis Fernando López as Ministers of Government and Defense, respectively, and elevated López and Camacho’s allies in the military to the high command.

In less than a week, the hardliners had propelled themselves not just to the head of the anti-Morales movement but to the crucial positions of power in the state. Áñez’s party had won a scant 4.24% of the vote, but she assumed the role of transitional president. Had this been her sole intent, as she repeatedly promised that week, the lack of voter support might not have been so consequential. But both she and Camacho had the ambition of transforming their temporary leap into a permanent place in power.

Áñez announced she would run for president on January 24, reversing her November and December promises to never use the presidential office to secure her own election. It came on the heels of a dramatic annual address on January 22. Her candidacy was built on an unexpected alliance with Sol.Bo, the center-left party that governed the city and department of La Paz.

Luis Camacho, with no elected office or place in the Áñez government, had announced his candidacy on November 29, 2019. Camacho played against stereotypes by sealing an alliance with Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo) President Marco Pumari to serve as his vice presidential candidate on December 31. The political manifesto of their alliance offered only slogans and rejection of the “narcogovernment” of Evo Morales: “We leave aside the recurrent discourse of division between east and west, of the division between city and countryside, of the division between left and right.” “It is necessary for us to unite to construct a new STATE based on the trilogy of God, Fatherland, and People.”

Making a dramatic gesture of offering to “blank out” his own candidacy, Camacho convened a February gathering of the anti-Evo Morales opposition: “We are going to bring ourselves down so that we can all support a single candidacy.” The unity talks went nowhere: no one dropped out of the race. The perpetual inability of the Bolivian right to unify around a candidate haunted the half dozen politicians seeking to take on Luis Arce and the MAS-IPSP.

Meanwhile the street-clashing “youth” arm of Camacho’s civic movement, the Santa Cruz Youth Union (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista)—which Camacho had once headed—built ties with its Cochabamba analogue, the Cochala Youth Resistance (Resistencia Juvenil Cochala). Both groups made periodic appearances in on-the-street political violence as the year wore on, most dramatically during the waining days of the July–August blockades. Ministers in the Áñez government sometimes praised these less-lethal quasi-paramilitary formations, while also insisting that the police and armed forces must now take charge of the streets. In late January, that control took its most tangible form with the stunning deployment of 70,,000 armed soldiers to streets across the country.

However, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, a national health crisis began to overtake the Áñez government’s ambitions to consolidate the energy of the October protests behind it. Áñez and her cabinet were troubled by a series of scandals surrounding overpayment for badly needed medical supplies, and the epidemic exploded, first in Santa Cruz and later in La Paz. Luis Camacho peaked in the polls in January and Añez in February, neither ever overtaking Carlos Mesa.

Finally heeding her own advice, Áñez withdrew from the race in favor of anti-MAS-IPSP unity in September. Camacho stayed in, following the footsteps of Áñez’s 2019 Democrats alliance as the standard bearer of the eastern autonomist Right. Assuming that his voters don’t desert him to strategically back Mesa, Camacho’s Creemos party is on track for regional strength in Santa Cruz and Beni, but a near shut-out elsewhere. Still, such a fraction could hold sway over a hypothetical president Mesa in need of allies and unwilling to cut a deal with the MAS-IPSP.

The darker possibility is of attempts by the Right to hold power through the security forces, or through a repeat of the 2019 protests in the event of a MAS-IPSP victory. While these paths cannot be ruled out in advance, the broad acceptance of the legitimacy of the electoral authorities by the leading anti-MAS candidate makes these scenarios unlikely. Both Áñez and Camacho tried to use their temporary leadership of the anti-MAS parade to claim national power, but those plans have not been realized.

Formally dressed Luis Arce with an open collar and a Che lapel button

Luis Arce (MAS) leads polls heading into Bolivia’s election… but may struggle to prevent a runoff

After a year of unprecedented turmoil—including reasonable doubts about whether a new election would be indefinitely postponed—Bolivia’s leading political parties are heading into the October 18, 2020, election in much the same configuration as they were one year earlier. Luis Arce Catacora, who served as Evo Morales’ finance minister for twelve of his fourteen years in office, leads the race as the candidate of the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). He seems on track to win a plurality in the first round of voting, to surpass the 40% threshold of valid votes, but perhaps not to obtain the 10 percentage-point advantage over the second-place finisher necessary to obtain a runoff. And once again, former president Carlos Mesa, and his Citizen Community coalition, represents the only serious threat to the MAS-IPSP. Newcomer Luis Camacho, scion of Santa Cruz’s right-wing elite, seems poised to be the only other candidate to break the 3% minimum for parliamentary representation.

Three major polls by the Tu Voto Cuenta academic–NGO consortium, the Ipsos polling firm, and the Centro Estratégico Latinoamericano de Geopolítica (CELAG) show tightly converging results as can be seen here. (Added Oct 15: CiesMori/UTP and Mercados y Muestras/Página Siete.)

Tu Voto Cuenta
(15,537 adults, Oct 2–5)
42.9% valid
(2000 adults, Sep 21–Oct 4)
42.2% valid
(1700 adults, Sep 21–29)
44.4% valid34.0%15.2%10.4%
(Sep 29–Oct 8)
42.2% valid
Mercados y Muestras
(3000 adults, Sep 20-Oct 8)
37.2% valid

A 10% margin is still within reach for Arce and the MAS-IPSP, and any such count would not be subject to the same accusations of his party controlling the electoral apparatus. However, a close count could still arouse both skepticism and protest. Arce remains essentially at the same place in the polls as Evo Morales in October 2019. Then, as now, plenty of former MAS voters have not yet rejoined the party, something which Arce and VP candidate David Choquehuanca’s base-mobilizing strategy seems intent on reversing.

On the other hand, there is still time for anti-Morales forces to coalesce behind Mesa. Indeed, Mesa’s current lead appeal is a call to unify against the MAS:

“Help me stop fraud and corruption. Let’s build a better Bolivia together because my people comes first.”

CELAG and Tu Voto Cuenta surveyed voters on their second-round preferences as well. In CELAG’s poll, Mesa edges out Are 44.6% to 42.4%, while Tu Voto Cuenta found a larger margin of 43.8% to 38.0%. However, both these results show sizable fractions of null and undecided voters who could be swayed during the weeks of campaigning that would precede a second round.

The polls signal the likely failure of several political projects that emerged during last year’s voting. Interim president Jeanine Añez dropped out in September, urging the anti-MAS-IPSP forces to consolidate their votes. The La Paz-centered center-left party, led by mayor Lucho Revilla, has since re-endorsed Mesa, restoring the alliance it spurned to back Áñez. Christian conservative Chi Hyun Chung, a surprisingly strong third-place finisher in the 2019 vote, seems poised to be excluded from the legislature. Former president Jorge Quiroga polls around 1%. Meanwhile, Luis Fernando Camacho’s party is heavily concentrated in Santa Cruz, where it looks set to lead the race, with strong third-place finishes likely only in Beni and Pando. Despite taking Potosí civic leader as his vice presidential candidate, Camacho is polling at just 7% in that highland department, with only marginal support in the rest of the Altiplano.

CELAG reports that 84.7% of voters say they will vote in spite of the ongoing pandemic, with the remainder unsure.

Lead photo: Luis Arce Catacora in April 2019 Creative Commons attribution/noncommercial/share-alike license by Casa de América.

The 1988 Villa Tunari massacre, a dossier

In June 1988, Bolivia’s then-nascent Chapare coca grower’s union movement suffered its greatest single-day loss of life, the Villa Tunari Massacre. The killings came amid their campaign to oppose the passage of Ley 1008, which would eventually criminalize all coca growing in the Cochabamba valley region. The day forged the union and later political career of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s future president, and set Chapare coca growers and the US-backed Bolivian government on a deadly collision course that would claim scores of lives over the twenty-seven years that followed.

Despite the event’s importance, there have been precious few accounts in English. Jo Ann Kawell’s 1989 article in NACLA Report on the Americas is by the far the most complete I’ve found.

Shortly before Bolivia passed a new law aimed at controlling coca production, a crowd of protesters gathered at the drug police post in Villa Tunari, a small town in the coca-growing Chapare region. An hour-long video tape made by a crew from a local television station documented the scene: Hundreds of marchers, dressed in shabby work clothes and carrying no visible arms, not even sticks, approach the post. Nervous police, wearing camouflage uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, block the marchers’ advance. A union leader asks permission for the group to enter and go to the eradication program office located on the site. Shots ring out. One farmer falls dead, another is wounded. Several farmers, including the wounded man, point out the police agent who fired. A police official promises that his men’s arms will not be used again “against campesinos. Only to fight drug traffickers.” But many more shots are heard as the police push the marchers off the grounds and far down the road. It was later reported that at least 12 more people died, some by drowning, as the marchers tried to escape across a river. The farmers later charged that agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had encouraged the police action.

Kawell, Jo Ann. “Under the Flag of Law Enforcement.” NACLA Report on the Americas 22, no. 6 (1989): 25–40. Full text | Paywalled PDF version.

Wikipedia Drawing on documents assembled for Ultimate Consequences, my database on deaths in Bolivian political conflict, Vanderbilt graduate student Nathan Frisch drafted a summary narrative, which I revised into the Wikipedia article and revised again with another Wikipedian’s advice and suggestions. The article begins:

The Villa Tunari Massacre was a 27 June 1988 mass killing committed by UMOPAR (Rural Patrol Mobile Unit) troops in response to a protest by coca-growing peasants (cocaleros) in the town of Villa Tunari in Chapare Province, Bolivia. The cocalero movement had mobilized since late May 1988 in opposition to coca eradication under Law 1008, then on the verge of becoming law.[1] According to video evidence and a joint chuch-labor investigative commission, UMOPAR opened fired on unarmed protesters, at least two of whom were fatally shot, and many of whom fled to their deaths over a steep drop into the San Mateo River. The police violence caused the deaths of 9 to 12 civilian protesters, including three whose bodies were never found, and injured over a hundred.[2][3][4][5] The killings were followed by further state violence in Villa Tunari, Sinahota, Ivirgarzama, and elsewhere in the region, including machine gun fire, beatings, and arrests.

Villa Tunari Massacre on Wikipedia.

Coverage from CEDOIN’s bimonthly newsletter Informe “R”, which includes the full report of the joint (“multisectoral”) Catholic Church–National Congress–COB labor confederation investigative commission.

Bolivian newsclippings from late June 1988:

Anniversary coverage in the government-run daily newspaper Cambio, thirty years after the massacre. Chambi O., Víctor Hugo. “La Masacre de Villa Tunari Tuvo El Sello de La Intromisión de EEUU.” Cambio, June 27, 2018.

Historias a Quemarropa (“Point Blank Histories”) Documentary on the massacre from state-run Bolivia TV. Primarily consisting of an extended interview with Evo Morales, this segment also includes three-and-a-half minutes of graphic and intense video from the massacre as it took place, likely from the Channel 13 video mentioned by other sources.

Mamani case plaintiffs and legal counsel

US Court revives case against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, widens accountability for extrajudicial killings

The US Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit in Miami issued a major ruling that brings us closer to justice for the killings during in the 2003 “Gas War” protests. Bolivian President Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada and Defense Mininister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín both fled to exile in the United States after the deaths of over 70 protesters failed to quash widespread protests. For the last thirteen years, a legal team including Bolivian human rights lawers, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and DC-based Akin Gump have pursued the two former officials for civil accountability in the United States.

The plaintiffs, surviving relatives of eight people killed during the 2003 protests, sued the two officials in US civil court under the Torture Victims Protection Act. In March 2018, the case, Mamani et. al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín became the first time that a former head of state was brought to trial for human rights violations in a United States court. A month later, a jury a United States jury found the defendants liable under the Torture Victims Protection Act and not liable under a wrongful death claim. They entered a judgment of $10 million for the eight deaths. But Judge James I. Cohn set aside the jury’s ruling in May 2018, finding that the jury could not have lawfully reached its conclusion. (Full chronologies from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard Human Rights Program.)

Today, the 11th Circuit Appeals Court dramatically reversed that ruling and issued a dramatic endorsement of the plaintiffs’ long quest for justice. The ruling:

  1. Vacates the judge’s move to set aside the verdict, and imposes a new standard for judgement.
  2. Makes an explicit case that a reasonable jury could have found the defendants liable.
  3. Clarifies a broader standard for defining “extrajudicial killings” under the TVPA—based on the indiscriminate use of force—that can be used going forward.
  4. Opens the door for a new trial on the wrongful death claims by ruling that inadmissible hearsay (from US government cables) was provided to the jury improperly.

The plaintiffs clearly recognize Monday’s ruling as a victory. “This is such wonderful news,” said Sonia Espejo, whose husband Lucio was killed in the 2003 Massacre. “We have fought for so long. We will continue fighting, but for today, I feel happy. I feel calm,” according to their joint press release.

Beyond the renewed possibility that Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín will have to pay (in a material sense) for coordinating the deadliest crackdown on protesters in Bolivia’s democratic era, the ruling offers both a significant increment in the willingness of US courts to hold human rights abuses accountable and direct validation of the loss suffered and grief endured by the families that brought the case.

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Bolivia saw massive forest loss in 2019

Widespread fires in Bolivia, which ravaged over 6.4 million hectares—6% of the country’s surface area—as of November 2019, caused massive damage to primary forests according to multiple research teams that investigate and quantify deforestation. Global Forest Watch, which attempts to quantify primary forest loss—that is, the area of untouched forest destroyed—found that Bolivia lost 290,000 hectares in 2019, nearly doubling its 2018 loss of 154,000 hectares. This brought Bolivia to fourth place among tropical countries for deforestation in 2019. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project found that deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon increased markedly from 58,000 hectares in 2018 to 135,400 hectares in 2019, though MAAP’s study area excludes Santa Cruz department, where the worst 2019 fires occurred.

These figures are, as expected, well below the overall total area burned by fires in Bolivia, as calculated by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza–Bolivia, which closely monitors satellite fire data. FAN-Bolivia estimated that 2.0 million of the 6.4 million burned acres were forested. The bulk of this forest loss came in Santa Cruz, where 1.9 million of a record-setting 4.1 million burned acres were forested, by FAN-Bolivia’s calculations. Of course, not all fires destroy all forest cover, not all forests are primary, and not all losses represent the first loss to an area. Global Forest Watch’s estimate of 290,000 hectares only applies forest loss that meets all three criteria. GFW has a much higher estimate for Bolivia’s total forest loss in 2019: 852,000 hectares. Much previously damaged forest, or forest never regarded as primary, burned in 2019.

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Are we in the most widespread protest wave in US history?

As Black Lives Matter protests multiply across the country in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, people are asking how to place the massive public reaction into historical context. Subjectively, the current protests can feel like another element in a long series of protests memorializing Black deaths at the hands of the state and private racist acts—“A decade of watching Black people die”—and simultaneously like “a watershed moment” that “changes everything,” as new and unexpected parts of US and world society are joining in the resistance to racism and police violence. It’s in that context that the first quantitative counts of the George Floyd protests are circulating now.

Writing in the Washington Post, Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman call the current protest wave “the broadest in U.S. history” and note that, “People have held protests in all 50 states and D.C., including in hundreds of smaller, lesser-known towns and cities that have not been in the spotlight during previous nationwide protests.” Of course, “broad” is the a measure here because, so far, largest is off the table: many protest waves have involved larger overall numbers of participants and certainly there have been many larger single events than the impressive rallies this week, which have reached the tens of thousands in Minneapolis, Houston, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. And of course, no prior protest wave has had to overcome the challenge of pandemic-induced social distancing.

So the measure has become less about the sheer number of people involved, and more about the number and diversity of the locations we are showing up to protest. So how do we measure that and how can we be sure? Unfortunately, there is no single long-term data set on protest participation, despite the recent hard work of the Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC)—founded by Chenoweth and Pressman—since 2017. Before that time, we have to rely on historical and personal memory, which can often mean we forget the more distant past and discard events that don’t fit well into longer narratives.

The data from the CCC show events in 538 distinct US municipalities so far (and more are on the way). (To calculate this number, I ran a uniqueness filter on city and state from the May and June spreadsheets for George Floyd events.) A tracker from USA Today names 700 localities in the United States. These are very high numbers, but of course they reflect both the increased willingness and ability to rapidly organize protests and improved means for researchers to find them. Zeynep Tufekci makes a compelling call in her book Twitter and Tear Gas to avoid purely numerical comparisons across different decades: “seemingly similar outcomes

“seemingly similar outcomes and benchmarks—for example, a protest march attended by a hundred thousand people—do not necessarily signal the same underlying capacity to those in power when they are organized with the aid of digital technology as they do when they are organized without such supporting tools.

Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017, p. 192.

Instead of measuring outcomes, Tufekci urges us to look at the “onerous labor and deep organizational and logistical capacity to make things happen,” which had to be built before marches could exist in the 1960s, but which now tends to be constructed on site after a movement has gone viral and found one another in the streets. She proposes we should look at narrative capacity—“the ability of the movement to frame its story on its own terms, to spread its world view”; disruptive capacity to “interrupt the regular operations of a system of authority”; and electoral or institutional capacity “to keep politicians from being elected, reelected, or nominated unless they adopt and pursue” desired policies.

It may be too early to tell whether participation in 2020 is truly more widespread than in past events, or to measure the depth of commitment and sophistication of the current movement, but what I want to do here is lay out some other protest waves that we should have in mind when looking for comparisons:

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