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.


Notes:

[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,” http://www.fondoindigena.org/apc-aa-files/documentos/items/Caucus_Ind_gena.pdf.

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.

Deaths during Bolivia’s 2019 crisis: An initial analysis

Since 2015, I have been working systematically to compile a database of people who lost their lives in the course of Bolivian conflict, though I had been collecting detailed on a variety of deadly post-2000 events for years before that. Never before this year, however have I had the responsibility of adding so many new, present-day entries to database: at least 35 people died in the conflicts that followed the October 20 election and the November 10 overthrow of Evo Morales. November alone proved to be the bloodiest month in sixteen years, and the third deadliest month of the democratic era. And it is thanks to the database that I can make simple factual statements like those.

The database enumerates individual deaths in Bolivian political conflict since 1982, the end of military rule in the country. It is compiled by myself and a research assistant based on multiple sources, including media reports, governmental, intergovernmental, and private human rights reports, and use of the research literature on political conflict. The dataset now includes nearly all of the deaths identified by a Permanent Assembly of Human Rights-Bolivia (APDHB) study of deaths from 1988 to 2003, and a study of the coca conflict from 1982 to 2005 (Navarro Miranda 2006; Llorenti 2009; Salazar Ortuño 2008). Unlike prior compilations by human rights organizations, however, this database includes a variety of qualitative variables designed to understand how and why the deaths occurred and what policies and patterns underpin them.

I designed the database to both catalog the lethal consequences of participation in social movements and political activism, and to assess responsibility, accountability, and impunity for violent deaths. All deaths are significant as signs of the price that has been paid to seek social
change. Some deaths are also significant as elements of repression or violence for which someone might ultimately be held accountable. Rather than begin by asking, “Is this death someone’s fault?,” we are coding each death according to multiple factors that enable us to extract different
subsets of the overall database for different purposes. We estimate there were 550 to 580 deaths associated with Bolivian political conflict from October 1982 until the current crisis. As of October 2019, the project had identified 530 of these deaths, including those of 496 named individuals.

Through this process, I have become familiar with reading multiple and conflicting reports, evaluating official denials (we have created a data column for such denials), collecting narrative accounts, coding what we can based on the information, and signaling remaining questions. One thing that I have learned through this process is that making informed judgements, rather than marking all disputed facts with some kind of asterisk, is absolutely foundational to being able to do comparative work. It was with that experience that I spent time over the past month reading and processing reports of Bolivia’s deadly November.

This blog post presents Part I of this analysis, which describes the deadly events involved and explains some of my coding decisions in assessing responsibility for them. A second part will put the 2019 into comparative perspective against other periods covered by the database.

Who killed and who died in the 2019 crisis?

This table (click to expand) shows my initial analysis of the affiliations of the victims and perpetrators of violence and other deadly incidents during October and November. Overall, thirty-five people died in the conflict, including two people killed in their attempts to avoid violence against them.

Crisis deaths and affiliations of victims and perpetrators.
Deaths during the crisis and their causes.

Below, I break down the events involved and describe what we know about who was responsible for and who suffered these deaths.

Read More »

National police mutiny marks a critical point in Bolivian electoral crisis

The Bolivian political crisis set off by credible (if unconfirmed) allegations of fraud in the October 20 presidential elections took two dramatic turns this week. On Wednesday, a major escalation in clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators in downtown Cochabamba and near Huayculi in Cochabamba caused scores of serious injuries and the death of a twenty-year old student, Limbert Guzmán, who had been protesting against electoral fraud. The anti-government side engaged in less-lethal outrages upon government-aligned actors: subjecting the MAS-IPSP-affiliated Mayor of Vinto to march to the site of the clashes and pelting her with red paint, and last night burning out the Cochabamba offices of the Chapare coca grower’s union and MAS-IPSP political party.

But the pivotal event of yesterday is the decision of members of the national police to declare themselves in mutiny in solidarity with the electoral fraud protests. (Police mutinies are a periodic occurrence in Bolivia, and the term does not connote a necessarily violent uprising, but rather a collective refusal to follow orders.) The mutiny began at Cochabamba’s Police Operations Tactical Unit (Wikipedia), a specialized anti-riot force, and quickly spread to two other units in the city, and to police units and/or commanders in five other cities since then. Mutinied police officers have occupied their own barracks, raised Bolivian flags and sometimes anti-fraud banners, and effectively removed themselves as an option for President Evo Morales to control mushrooming protests. The ongoing protest mobilization has gathered hundreds or thousands of protesters around police barracks supporting existing mutinies and encouraging further ones. Meanwhile, the Morales government has described the police mutiny as the unmistakable sign of a coup d’état.

Police mutinies in their bottom-up form have accompanied Bolivian protest before. They can force governments to negotiate and avoid bloodshed. Or, in the worst case (Feb 2003), there can be bloodshed among state security forces. The next critical question is the stance of the military. Early signs are neither the military leadership nor Minister of Government appear to want the police and military to be deployed against one another.

Bolivia has had a lot of off-schedule changes of power, but since 1982 the have always been ratified by a vote at the ballot box. This was true in mid-1985, when general strikes and business lockouts forced Hernán Siles Zuazo to call early elections; in October 2003, when the Gas War uprising, supported by a series of hunger strikes led Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign; in June 2005 when further protests pressed Carlos Mesa to resign, and two legislators to forego their right to presidential succession, prompting December 2005 elections; and during the 2008 political crisis, when dueling protest mobilizations were ultimately resolved in favor of the Morales–grassroots left coalition, with the outcome ratified by a recall referendum and a constitutional referendum. In April 2000, a police strike influenced the government decision to capitulate to the Water War protests in Cochabamba and de-escalate its repression of rural protests in the Altiplano. At the final moments, the military high command pressed for a constitutional exit to the crises in 2003 and 2005.

In all of these cases, the military signaled limits to further state repression, stayed out of the presidential chair, and did not substitute its choice of leaders for one determined at the ballot box. Arguably, this is why none of these events are remembered as coups d’ètat. In the current context, doing so will require holding some kind of vote under terms that are acceptable to a broad swath of the Bolivian public and that acknowledges the rights of both Morales and Mesa voters. If and only if the police, military, Morales government and electoral opposition can agree to such an exit, democracy can be preserved.

Understanding the end of the Evo Morales majority

The October 20, 2019, election in Bolivia marks a watershed moment in the electoral fortunes of Evo Morales and the party he leads, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP). When Morales was elected in 2005, he was the first candidate to achieve an absolute majority (53.7%) of Bolivian voters in at least half a century. The MAS-IPSP was the leading force of a three-fifths majority alliance in the Constitutional Assembly of 2006 and 2007, which produced a new constitution approved by 61.4% of voters in January 2009. In the next two elections, in 2009 and 2014, Evo and the MAS-IPSP won over 60% of the vote, and gained two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

A referendum to authorize Morales to run for a fourth term was held on February 21, 2016. Despite a vigorous campaign, Morales was unable to secure majority support to amend the constitution. He finished with 48.7% of the vote.

This week, Morales has again fallen short of the 50% mark, winning between 44% and 46.85% of the vote. Vote counting is ongoing, but the key question is not whether Morales will win majority, but whether he will outpace his leading challenger by more than 10% and avoid a runoff. In the legislature, the MAS-IPSP will lose its supermajority, but will remain the majority party in the Chamber of Deputies and may end up with half the Senators, or one or two more.

While the final vote totals are not in, we have both a broad-based rapid count (TREP) by the Plurinational Electoral Organ of some 83% of the votes cast and a parallel analysis by researchers at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and Fundación Jubileo called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your vote counts”). The differences between these two sources are minor, and putting either into context lets us see the overall trends. (Since the re-started rapid count is the object of speculation about vote manipulation and the official count is incomplete and rapidly changing, I’m not using their data here.)

Morales lost votes across the board since 2014, 2016

Compared with the last presidential election in 2014, Evo Morales’ MAS-IPSP lost support in all nine of Bolivia’s departments, receiving 15.9% altogether. (All percentages in this post are percentages of votes cast, not percentage declines.) The sharpest losses for the governing party came in Chuquisaca, Potosí, and Oruro. Potosí and Oruro are traditional sources of strength for the MAS-IPSP, but have been fading for nearly a decade. In the two most populous departments, La Paz department fell away from the MAS-IPSP slightly more than the national average, while Santa Cruz’s vote share decline slightly less. The northern Amazonian departments of Beni and Pando saw the smallest declines.

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The Palestinian protest camps in Gaza are world’s most daring protest

Today is the long-planned climactic day of the Great March of Return, a Palestinian protest on the fenceline of the Gaza Strip. On March 30, Palestinians set up five protest camps a half-kilometer from the Israeli military. These camps are themselves a form of mass protest, reminding the world that two-thirds of Gazans are refugees from towns, villages, and farms within Israeli territory. The protest’s chief demand is the Right of Return, their ability to freely return to their homes and/or to re-establish the communities they have maintained in exile for the past 70 years. Protesters are also demanding an end to the eleven-year blockade of Gaza, imposed in 2007, which has crippled the territory economically. The camps have been the staging grounds for weekly demonstrations, in which ten to thirty thousand protesters rally while at first hundreds, and more recently thousands of protesters have advanced into the unilaterally declared buffer zone along the fence. During these protests, unarmed Palestinians have thrown stones and flaming bottles towards the fence, and used a variety of tools to dismantle part of the wall that keeps them caged and isolated from the rest of the world.

Marchers, journalists, protesters engaged in confrontation and those who have peacefully approached the fence have all been subjected to an unprecedent barrage of violent force on the part of the Israeli military, who are positioned in towers and earthen embankments on their side of the fence. Israeli snipers have shot over 2,500 people and as of today, killed over fifty Palestinians. Yet week after week they keep coming.

The Great Return March in Gaza continues to be the most daring tactical encounter between protesters and security forces on the planet.

If you’ve seen the film Gandhi, you know the scene where people line up and risk beatings to defend their strike. Journalistic coverage of this march on the Dharasana Salt Works was a devastating proof the moral bankruptcy of British Rule in India. I’ve long said this could not be repeated when the opponent has deadly weapons. The Gaza protests have proven me wrong.

The Gaza protesters are unarmed militants, not satyagrahis. They are not arriving empty-handed but with stones in their hands. But they have injured no one on the Israeli side. They are deploying unequal means: inflicting symbolic damage while suffering brutal and deadly violence. And their response to that violence is not to switch to the deadlier means at their disposal (guns and rockets), but to keep coming back.

This is the dynamic of the Soweto Uprising, a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Unequal violence proved morally unsustainable for the regime, ultimately isolating it from its support system in the United States and Europe. The dynamic on the side of Israel and its backers remains unknown; will shooting thousands of essentially defenseless civilians provoke a moral reckoning? That choice is up to us.

You probably haven’t seen this protest from the inside. To do so, see the last footage captured by Yaser Murtaja, who was killed by Israeli gunfire in April. It offers a flash of insight into what the ongoing Gaza protests entail. Watch it.

After the break, four things you need to know about the protests…

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Repost: Bolivia’s 2013 Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples

Recent events—the appearance of indigenous people in voluntary isolation (“uncontacted peoples”) in an oil concession block in the Bolivian Amazon—have thrust the Bolivia’s 2013 Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples (Ley de protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígenas Originarios en situación de alta vulnerabilidad; Ley 450) back into the spotlight. Despite some initial movement in 2014, the Bolivian government has not issued the regulations for Law 450, a required step in its implementation, and “the government institution created by that law and responsible for instituting such measures, the Dirección General de Protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígena Originarios (DIGEPIO), does not exist.”

To provide background on this law, I’m reposting Bolivia Information Forum’s article on the law, archived obscurely here. (Full disclosure: I wrote it.) The full text of the law (es) is available here.

Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples

In November [2013], Bolivia’s legislature passed the Law for the Protection of Highly Vulnerable Indigenous Peoples. This extends special protection to isolated indigenous peoples, as well as others who face severe threats to their health, territory or capacity to protect their culture. There are seven indigenous cultures that are believed to include people living in isolation, unconnected to the broader society. According to a recent report by the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, as many as 21 indigenous peoples could be termed as being at high risk from ethnocide. While a handful of large indigenous groups make up half of Bolivia’s population, these small groups represent less than 0.3%.

The term “voluntary isolation” describes groups of indigenous peoples who have either never had contact with those outside their culture or who actively refuse any such contact, sometimes by force. In the case of the Araona, the Esse Ejja, the Yuki, the Pacahuara, the Ayoreo and the Yuracaré, only a limited number of families have chosen to live in isolation. As in many countries, most Bolivians who fit this description have had highly traumatic encounters with outsiders, including experiences of enslavement, kidnapping of their children, massacres, and devastating epidemics from diseases previously unknown to them. There were unwanted incursions by missionary expeditions up to the 1980s and more recently by those seeking to exploit raw materials. In 2008 loggers murdered at least two Pacahuaras.

The right to live in voluntary isolation is recognised by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (incorporated into Bolivian law in 2007). The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ordered Peru and Ecuador to take precautionary measures to safeguard the areas where uncontacted groups live from outside threats. The Toromona people in the Madidi National Park have been protected since 15 August 2006. In 2011, a summit convened by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) urged the government to create similar zones for the Ayoreo, Pacahuara, and T’simane people. Most of these zones are threatened not just by the activities of outside individuals but by exploration activities in oil and gas concessions that overlap with their territories.

The law creates a new government agency [Dirección General de Protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígena Originarios-DIGEPIO] charged with protecting indigenous peoples whose “physical and cultural survival is extremely threatened.” Its main task is to develop and implement protection strategies, including exclusion zones, emergency health services and disease monitoring, environmental restoration, and cultural revitalization initiatives. Under the terms of the law, those exploiting natural resources are expected to follow these rules.

Cooperative Mining Protest leaves Vice Minister, Five Protesters Dead in Bolivia

Vice Minister Rodolfo Illanes, in charge of Bolivian security forces within the Ministry of Government, was killed Thursday night after being held captive by protesting cooperative miners. Illanes was part of a negotiating team sent arrange talks with a national protest campaign. He went to Panduro, a town on the La Paz–Oruro highway, Thursday morning, where he was taken hostage by members of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin). Later in the day, he was brutally beaten to death and then left on the side of the highway. His capture and death came on the second of two deadly days of confrontations between miners and police attempting to disperse their blockades of Bolivia’s principal highways.

Recent confrontations around the government’s effort to clear road blockades by cooperative miners have been unusually violent and intense. Two miners died of gunshot wounds on Wednesday at Sayari (on the Oruro–Cochabamba highway), Fermín Mamani (25 years old) and Severino Ichota (41), according to national government prosecutors who have opened investigations of their deaths. A third, Rubén Aparaya Pillco, was reportedly shot dead on Thursday at Panduro, near where Illanes was being held. At two more miner’s lives were cut short: Freddy Ambrosio Rojas (26) died on Saturday after suffering severe injuries while holding dynamite at the Panduro confrontation. Pedro Mamani Massi (41) suffered a gunshot to the head and suffered brain death in the hospital;  he remains on life support without prospect for recovery. he died on September 1 and was mourned by his family in El Alto.

As part of my research, I have been compiling a database of deaths in political conflict in Bolivia during the current (post-1982) democratic period. This work is still in process, but can help to put current events into context. This week’s events make 2016 the deadliest year since 2008, with 13 fatalities. In February, six municipal workers died in the city hall of El Alto (the nation’s second largest city) as the result of an arson attack by protesters. In January, soldiers beat a trucking worker to death during a pressure campaign by that sector.

Deaths in Bolivian protest have been less common under the presidency of Evo Morales than in the past and killings by state security forces (army and police) make up a smaller fraction of deaths than under Morales’ predecessors. We’ve identified 91 deaths during Morales’ ten years in office (including those this week), and fewer than a third of them were carried out by security forces. Meanwhile, at least twenty-one deaths under the Morales administration have come in conflicts among mineworkers or between mineworkers and community members: 16 in 2006, two in 2008; one in 2012; and two in 2015. Two cooperative miners were killed by police during 2014 protests in Cochabamba, during a confrontation in which police were also taken hostage. Altogether, four members of the police or military have died in political conflicts since 2006. Vice Minister Illanes is the first senior official to be killed.

This confrontation does not herald a general confrontation between state and society or among larger political forces. No other sectors have joined Fencomin’s protests and the group is at odds with waged mine workers who play a key role in the national labor movement. Cooperative miners are longtime allies of the MAS government, backed President Morales’ re-election in 2014, and endorsed another term for him as recently as May.

Since 2009, the most intense conflicts in Bolivian society have occurred within the broad grassroots left coalition that backed the rise of Evo Morales to power. The government has routinely alleged that protests from within the grassroots left have an anti-government political agenda, and did so again this week, but these claims are often unsubstantiated. The 2006-08 conflict between the Morales government and secession-oriented right-wing movements has long since concluded, and is unrelated to the current protests.Read More »

What’s at stake in the Paris climate talks

Addressing climate change is one of the most important collective decisions facing us as humans living in 2015. Based on decisions made in the next two weeks, the states of the world will either commit to restrain global climate change to under 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or plan for modest reductions in pollution that still put us on track for 4°C of warming by 2100 (with greater increases beyond that).

Let’s assume you know the importance of this choice in theory, but maybe not in its details. Or even that you knew what the major risks of a 4°C warmer world back when the climate talks were held in Copenhagen, but haven’t updated your knowledge since then. Or that you know, and want something to share with those who don’t. Here are some places to get informed, in way that speaks to the immensity of the risks ahead, relatively fast…

And when you’re wondering how to feel about all this, read these for some company in the face of stark realities:

Some facts to dispel your #QuinoaGuilt

This juicy news summary from the Guardian may be the least accurate thing you will ever read about quinoa in Bolivia: “Bolivian and Peruvian farmers sell entire crop to meet rising western demand, sparking fears of malnutrition.” Here’s why:

  • Quinoa farmers (a tiny regionally concentrated minority of Bolivian farmers) have traditionally and continue to set aside a percentage of their quinoa crops for personal use. If they are consuming any less, it’s because they can now afford to buy more fruit and meat than ever before. Source: Los Tiempos, June 2012.
  • Despite the #QuinoaGuilt narrative that “Fewer Bolivians can afford it,” domestic consumption of quinoa in Bolivia tripled in the four years to 2012  Source: La Razón.  Consumption in 2013 was even higher, up by 66%, to 20,000 metric tons due to heavy investment and promotion. Source: La Razón. Bolivian urbanites are eating more quinoa because of diminished stigma around it being an “Indian food.”
  • The government is actively promoting quinoa consumption among the poor, by including it in pre-natal nutrition and school lunch programs.
  • Prices in the domestic market are a public policy issue, prompting government investment to increase supply, as well as the free distribution programs mentioned above. While prices continued to rise in 2013, they hope the much larger cultivation area will lower prices this year.
  • Extreme poverty has plummeted from 38% to 22% of the Bolivian population. Heavy malnutrition once affected 32.7%, but not it affects 24%. Source: La Prensa and the FAO. These gains are driven by faster growth and stronger redistribution of wealth.
  • Compared with other major export crops, quinoa production is carried out by smaller, more sustainable farmers whose lives are more improved by the increased income. These small farmers’ associations capture more of the sale price than do farmers in more mechanized sectors like soybeans and oils.

See also: Further information from the Andean Information Network.