Evo Morales’ bid for a fourth term as Bolivia’s president will be put to the test when voters go to the polls on Sunday, October 20. All signs point to the most competitive presidential contest since 2002, when the future president narrowly lost to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the architect of neoliberalism in Bolivia. After grassroots protests ousted Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and his historian-turned-Vice-President in 2005, Evo Morales swept to power with a decisive majority in a December 2005 special election. Since then, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) has dominated national and municipal politics in the country, and never dipped below 48% support on a national ballot.
Morales is now the longest serving president in Bolivian history, but polls, past electoral results, and an extraordinary series of pre-election protests point to his extraordinary vulnerability this time around. Even though Morales retains a solid base and a significant lead in the polls, he may not clear the threshold for a first round victory, and could face a competitive runoff with Carlos Mesa a month later.
To understand the uncertainty in the election, you must first know the ground rules of the vote. Under the 2009 Constitution, presidents are elected by popular vote. In the initial round of voting, a candidate who receives over 50% of the votes cast (for a candidate), or who receives 40% and holds a 10% advantage over the 2nd place finisher is elected president. Otherwise, the top two finishers face off in a new head-to-head vote. Current polls agree that Morales and Mesa will finish first and second, respectively, but differ as to whether a runoff will be triggered.
Bolivian public opinion polls vary widely in quality and consistency. Historically, some have concentrated their samples in the more accessible urban corridors and underestimated the MAS-IPSP vote, which once had overwhelming rural strength. This year, however, a research team at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (La Paz’s famed public university) produced a poll with an extraordinarily large and geographically representative sample called Tu Voto Cuenta (“Your Vote Counts”). Their most recent results are shown here:
If accurate, Morales’ 32.3-27.0 margin would neither clear the 40% threshold nor the 10% minimum difference, even after excluding blank, null, and unsure votes as the electoral authorities will do in their calculations. Another poll by CiesMori shows a wider lead, 36.2-26.9. Discarding the neutral votes, this puts Morales just above the numbers needed to avoid a runoff.
On Friday, October 4, the Santa Civic Committee (Comité pro Santa Cruz) convened what will almost certainly prove to be the largest political gathering in Bolivia this year. Estimates of the crowd, while unverified, hover around one million people, including large numbers bused in from outside the city. Sixteen days before the 2019 presidential election, this “Cabildo for democracy and the land” follows in the footsteps of regional cabildos in 2004 and 2008, at a time when the department of Santa Cruz was the leading center of opposition to the grassroots left movement in the country and to indigenous president Evo Morales.
Now fifteen years after the first major cabildo put proposals for autonomy and federalism (that is, the devolution of national powers to the level of Bolivia’s nine departments; the analogue of states in the USA), the same movement has reconvened and added new demands to platform. First, the Santa Cruz movement remains a pole of opposition to Evo Morales, but it now frames that opposition in terms of defending the democratic vote cast in the February 21, 2016 referendum, when 51.3% of voters denied Morales the right to run for a fourth presidential term. The Cruceño movement views the judicial and electoral decisions to allow Morales to nevertheless participate in the October 20, 2019, election as illegitimate.
But the cabildo, and the election, have been reshaped by the ecological crisis of the Bolivian fires this year. While every year sees deliberate burning of future agricultual lands in Bolivia, the fires this year spread into a regional disaster of unusual (if not unprecedented) proportions. Over the past ten weeks (and these figures are likely underestimates since they run through September 25), fires have consumed over 5.3 million hectares of Bolivia’s land, and some 3.9 million hectares in Santa Cruz alone. This is over 10% of the department. Nearly all of the 2 million hectares of forest that burned was inside the department, including at least one sixth of the Chiquitano dry forest (1.4/8.6M ha) has burned in the last two months. Cruceños have watched as news of the disaster came in daily, including devastating losses in twelve natural protected areas and the deaths of five people engaged in fighting the fires.
On one hand, the political fallout has been predictable: existing regional grievances that divide Santa Cruz from the federal government have been reactivated. These fall into there areas: Cruceños (at least as led by the free-market-oriented, agribusiness-connected elites) perceive themselves as culturally and politically distinct from the more Andean, indigenous, and socialist central government. Their government and administrative officials have long chafed at the centralization of the Bolivian state. And, the tensions around racial identity spark hottest around the steady migration of Aymara- and Quechua-speaking highlanders to both urban and rural Santa Cruz. Which is to say that economics, administration, and race are all part of the conflict.
With the world’s eyes turned towards the fires in the Amazon rainforest, and primarily on Brazil, there is good reason to survey the larger problem of deliberate deforestation across South America. Right now Bolivia is several weeks into the most devastating season of fires in at least a decade. As of August 22, the Bolivian government reported that 744,000 hectares of the country were affected by the blazes, and by Saturday, August 24, the regional government of Santa Cruz raised that estimate to over one million hectares.
A key driver of the fires in both countries is the deliberate clearing of forest land for agricultural production, which has been prioritized by left-wing government of Evo Morales as well as the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro. Last week, both presidents reacted flippantly to the growing international attention surrounding the fires. (On August 19, Morales called the fires “natural phenomena” that “will continue” in years to come and seemed preoccupied with avoiding blame: “This is not the first time that there have been fires, they have always been around. Now they want to blame Evo Morales for the fires.” ) After the fires became a key discussion point at the G7 meeting, and following growing protests demanding international aid in eastern Bolivia, however, both men have attempted to show their governments are proactively responding to the emergency. Nonetheless, government policy in Brazil and Bolivia is fueling and authorizing the underlying drive to convert more of primary forests into croplands and grazing fields for cattle. This fact has been widely recognized for the government of Bolsonaro, who defied environmental regulators on his own private property before taking office, and who has dismantled environmental protections as president.
Unfortunately, the same policy priorities are at work in Bolivia under President Evo Morales. While from a different social class, as the leader of the Chapare coca grower’s union, Morales shares a similar orientation towards the forests of their respective countries. Both men see the Amazon rainforest (and in Bolivia’s case, the Chiquitano dry forest as well) as underpopulated areas of land that ought to be incorporated into the national economy through production for the market. (Contrary to some wild-eyed Twitter claims, however, the current fires in Bolivia are in the service of cattle and lowland export crops like soy, not coca.)
In 2013, the Morales government laid out its territorial vision as part of its 2025 Patriotic Agenda, a thirteen-point series of goals whose target date is the bicentennial of Bolivian independence. The plan, describing “how we want our beloved Bolivia to be” in Morales’ words, proposes an ambitious reterritorialization of Bolivia that will affect large portions of the country’s land surface, with millions of hectares altered by new agricultural, hydrocarbon, and infrastructural initiatives. It offers quantitative targets for the use of Bolivia’s land, water, and natural resources. In writing the plan, Bolivian government planners worked on a wide canvas: the full area of Bolivia’s national territory, which consists of nearly 110 million hectares and land and domestic waters.
The most dramatic shift proposed in the Patriotic Agenda is the so-called “expansion of the agrarian frontier”: increasing the total land under cultivation from 3.3 million hectares (in 2013) to as many as 13 million hectares by 2025. This staggering figure has been put forward by the president, vice president, and ministers, but their reach exceeds their grasp. The technical data used by the government’s planning staff, according to Fundación Tierra researcher Enrique Castañón Ballivián, corresponds to a still-startling 6-million-hectare cultivated area. Nearly half of the projected expansion would come in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, where soy (and soy oil)-exporting agribusiness dominates the economy. Costañón argues that this expansion would inevitably clash with indigenous collective titles, as well as forested areas.
While this agricultural land goal seemed unrealistically ambitious at the time, it has set the direction for Bolivia’s forest and land management agencies and for new decrees like the one that set off the current fires in the Chiquitanía.
Early on Sunday morning, September 17, over sixteen hundred Bolivian police massed in the high desert plateau east of Lake Titicaca. Perhaps the largest police mobilization under the presidency of Evo Morales, these forces gathered to interrupt an extraordinary local protest that had blockaded roads and interrupted travel by road in the region for an unprecedented 26 days. The operation used its overwhelming numbers, police vehicles, and a substantial amount of tear gas to break up the Achacachi blockade. Over forty-five people were arrested, twenty-one of whom are being held without bail in Patacamaya and San Pedro prisons. The intervention looks to be a decisive turn in the municipality’s protests, which have been ongoing throughout 2017.
The protesters, who have numbered in the thousands, are backing a demand that Édgar Ramos (of the governing MAS-IPSP party) step down as mayor of Achacachi municipality over allegations of corruption. That demand prompted protests in February, in which anti-Ramos demonstrators damaged the mayor’s property and his organizational allies in Achacachi city. In response, Ramos’ rural allies looted the city’s commercial district. In July, the national government advanced an investigation of the anti-Ramos forces, notably Achacachi Neighborhood Federation (Federación de Juntas Vecinales; Fejuve) leader Esnor Condori, but not of pro-Ramos forces. Reversing an earlier decisions to grant house arrest, a judge jailed Condori and two urban teachers affiliated with the movement, Pastor Salas and Gonzalo Laime, in San Pedro. The day after they were jailed, August 22, the blockade began.
In a remarkable month of mobilization, the mostly urban Achacachi protesters who began the blockade (in so far as a town of nine thousand people is considered urban on the Altiplano) both maintained steady control over regional roadways and built a surprising network of alliances. They were joined in protest by Felipe Quispe, the famed, but retired leader of the national peasant confederation CSUTCB, who is a native of Achacachi Municipality. They signed a pact of mutual support with TIPNIS community leaders still reeling from the August law that permits development in their territory. And on August 28, a march of Achacachi women descended from the Altiplano and El Alto to stand before the San Pedro Prison. Their signs read:
Damn those who defend corrupt mayors with their power.
Jail for this looter
Evo, listen: Your mayor is corrupt “Malditos aquellos que con su poder defiende a alcaldes corruptos”, “Cárcel para este saqueador” “Evo escucha, tu alcalde es un corrupto”
The Achacachi women stayed in the capital of La Paz, staging regular demonstrations and setting up a sit-in blockade in front of the Ministry of Justice. Their mobilization seems to have built more surprising ties to parts of the Paceño population, while the highland traditionalist organization CONAMAQ Orgánica, regional labor federation COD-La Paz, and the traditionally radical teacher’s union all offered their support.
On Friday, September 15, these groups combined to hold a cabildo—a mass public meeting that can issue statements or coordinate protests—in the Plaza San Francisco, the traditional heart of grassroots protest in Bolivia, four blocks below the presidential palace in La Paz.
The cabildo termed itself “Achacachi Somos Todos” (We are all Achacachi) and managed to generalize the demands of the local movement, related to the mayor and the detained protest leaders, into “an Agenda that comes from the Aymara people to the whole country.” The six points of departure raised and approved in the cabildo include (1) the struggle against corruption, (2) the struggle against the politicization of the criminal justice system, (3) the right to dissidence and critique, (4) respect for individual and collective rights, (5) critical debate about the vision for Bolivia’s development based on local demands and perspectives, and (6) rejection of the instrumentalizing of indigenous peoples for political ends.
Achacachi municipality, particularly the smaller town of Warisata and the many Aymara rural communities that make up most of its population, was the point of ignition for the 2003 Gas War, and a key part of the rural mobilizations that preceded it. At that time, a thousand marchers from the Altiplano led by Felipe Quispe implanted themselves in the overwhelmingly indigenous city of El Alto (just above La Paz on the edge of the Altiplano plateau) and became an articulating force for collaborative protest. Today, Achacachi Municipality is divided along partisan lines (which are partially town/village lines), but its mobilization again seems to be bringing other movements together. It is very much an alliance of outsiders, those grassroots social forces that have had the harshest break-ups with the national government. But the process of connection among them should be watched closely as the Achacachi movement regroups from Sunday morning’s police intervention.
Broad Legitimacy for Road Blockades as Protest Tactic in Bolivia
Road blockades are a frequent form of protest in Bolivia, at many different scales. A small demonstration may claim a single roadway, or a coordinated effort can deliberately paralyze transport across an entire region. Sometimes small protests in just the right place can lead to big consequences. Bolivia is one of the most highly mobilized countries in the world in terms of protest: In a 2012 national survey by LAPOP (the Latin American Public Opinion Project), just under 17% of 2,999 people polled said they had taken part in a protest in the last 12 months. The 508 who said yes were asked if they had blockaded a road or other public space, and 229 confirmed that they had. In other words, one out of every 13 adult Bolivians polled had taken part in a road blockade. Asked in the same year whether they approved of different kinds of political action, Bolivians rated blockading a bit lower than simply demonstrating, but ahead of creating a political party.
In 2002 and 2004, LAPOP asked Bolivians a more incisive question about road blockades:
“Sometimes there are protests that provoke difficulties because the streets are closed. In those cases, what should the government do? A veces hay protestas que provocan dificultades porque se cierran las calles. En esos casos, ¿qué debe hacer el gobierno?
The result was overwhelming: Large majorities (76.48% in 2002; 71.89% in 2004) chose “Negotiate with the protesters although this may take days or weeks, affecting the economy of the country” over “Order the police to open the roads.” (Negociar con los manifestantes aunque esto pueda tardar días o semanas, afectando la economía del país vs. Mandar a la policía para abrir los caminos).
Add to this the fact that the ruling political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People emerged from the Chapare cocalero movement, which frequently used blockades as a protest tool. And that it came to power in 2005 on a wave of unrest that was powered by blockades and sparked into national revolt in Achacachi. And that road blockades were also a frequent tool of the grassroots left in the 2006–09 struggle against a separatist right-wing movement in the east of the country.
Accordingly, the Morales government has often approached blockades with tolerance on the ground. It’s the exceptional application of intensive force to break up a blockade that attracts well-deserved attention: the 2010 police raid on the Caranavi blockade demanding a citrus plant, the 2016 effort to break up blockades by the cooperative miners federation, and this week’s operation in Achacachi. The first two efforts had deadly consequences: two townspeople were killed in Caranavi, and five miners and one Vice Minister died in last years confrontations. While the current operation caused no fatalities, it represents an important break point between the government and a movement that had been a solid part of its broad grassroots base until now.
This morning, Thursday August 3, the Chamber of Deputies of Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly is considering a bill that would authorize the country’s most controversial infrastructure project, the Cochabamba–Beni highway, to be built through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory.
Ramona Moye and Patricia Chávez, two MAS-affiliated Deputies in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, introduced the legislation on July 3, and it recently passed out of committee, and will be considered today. The bill, called the “Ley de Protección, desarrollo integral y sustentable del Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure – Tipnis” (Law for the Protection, Integral and Sustainable Development of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory) would repeal and replace Law 180, the 2011 law that protects the territory, declares it an “intangible zone,” and prohibits any highway project from passing through it. That law was the fruit of the a national march led by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia and a wave of nationwide support of the cause of protecting the territory.
Where can I get a quick overview of the TIPNIS conflict?
If you understand Spanish, watch this documentary:
What is the current state of construction of the highway?
The original funder of the highway, Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development, withdrew all funds from the project in 2012. Since then, the Bolivian government has funded the northern and southern segments of the project, located north of the park and inside the colonized Polygon 7 at the south end. Both of these segments have been troubled by delays and adverse construction conditions, but the southern Segment I was opened in 2016.
Despite the legal prohibition on Segment II, TIPNIS community members have recently shared photographic evidence that the government is actively building bridges inside of the Territory that would become part of the highway.
Emergency Protests in Defense of TIPNIS
On Wednesday, August 2, activists in La Paz marched and set up an encampment (plantón) in Plaza Camacho opposing the new law. Here is a half-hour video of their demonstration. Present in the video are Fabián Gil and Marqueza Teco from the Subcentral TIPNIS and a representative of CONAMAQ Orgánico. Press coverage: Página Siete.
A protest is being held on Thursday, August 3 in Cochabamba.
Fides reports Fides reports that security has prevented three opponents of the highway from entering the chamber during debate: Rafael Quispe, former head of CONAMAQ and currently an alternate deputy in the Assembly; Senator Edwin Rodríguez, head of the UD delegation; and Fernando Vargas, leader of the 2011 March and former President of the Subcentral TIPNIS. Vargas was later admitted into the gallery.
Inside the session, one opposition tactic was deputies wearing masking tape over their mouths to recall the police use of the same tape on captured members of the pro-TIPNIS march in September 2011. Another was protest signs within the session.
The debate included extended statements from MAS-IPSP deputies Patricia Chávez and Ramona Moye (indigenous seats, Cochabamba), Gabriel Montaño (Santa Cruz), Juana Quispe (Chimoré in the Chapare), and Emilio Vilche (alternate deputy and an affiliate of CONISUR). The official Twitter feed of the Chamber of Deputies (@Diputados_Bol) broadcast these statements but not those of opponents of the legislation. Opposition deputy Shirley Franco (UD) complained about a lack of parity in participation, but Montaño counted 16 opposition speeches, which she claimed lasted over 4 hours out of 11 hours of debate so far.
#AHORA@GabrielaSCZ:Hemos estado 11 horas en debate no es cierto, como dice la oposición, que fue una aprobación apresurada
Even before this approval, the Senate’s Committee on Land, Territory, Natural Resources and Environment put the legislation on its agenda (see image to the right). Minutes later, a vote in that committee resulted in a tie vote. A rapid-fire consideration of the bill is well underway. Late in the evening, Senate President José Alberto “Gringo” Gonzalez stated publicly that the chamber as whole will take up the bill next Tuesday morning, August 8, at 11am.
Video: TIPNIS leaders speak out against law that threatens their territory
Press conference featuring leaders of the Subcentral TIPNIS Conferencia de prensa dirigentes de la Subcentral TIPNIS
Marqueza Teco, President of the Subcentral of Women of TIPNIS
Fabián Gil, President of the Subcentral TIPNIS (elevated from Vice President by community resolution repudiating Domingo Nogales’ role in supporting the proposed law)
Available as Facebook live video segments: 1 | 2 (es)
Pablo Solón Romero was the most important face of the Plurinational State’s environmental and human rights diplomacy from 2006 to 2011. Last week, he became the latest critic of that same government to suddenly face criminal charges. On Friday, June 30, authorities delivered Solón a subpoena in a case against him and journalist Rafael Archondo. The pair had been designated Bolivia’s permanent and alternate representative to the United Nations. Now, they each face two charges of corruption for Archondo’s succession to the role after Solón resigned. The government alleges that Solón’s letter presenting Archondo to the United Nations constituted an unlawful usurpation of the President’s power to designate ambassadors.
For Solón, the investigation is an act of retribution.
In a statement released Monday, he declared:
The news wasn’t a surprise. Due to our critical analysis of the El Bala and El Chepete hydroelectric megadams, various friends had warned me that they would search underneath the stones to find something to accuse me of, to intimidate me, and to make me shut up. […]
I won’t refer at this time to the supposed crimes that we are accused of, since I will refute every one of them in a formal and public manner when I go to declare before the Prosecutor’s Office.
What I can say is that we will continue to think and we will continue to speak. Wherever we find ourselves, we will not renounce our ability to criticize and to state our opinion. It is most lamentable that rather than refute us with arguments, they seek to frighten us with this kind of accusations.
La noticia no fue una sorpresa. A raíz de nuestro análisis crítico de las mega hidroeléctricas de El Bala y el Chepete, varios amigos y amigas me habían advertido que buscarían debajo las piedras para acusarme de algo, intimidarme y hacerme callar.
En esta oportunidad no me referiré a los supuestos delitos de los cuáles se nos acusa ya que de manera formal y pública refutaré cada uno de ellos el día que vaya a declarar a la fiscalía.
Lo que si puedo decir es que seguiremos pensando y seguiremos hablando. Donde quiera que nos encontremos no renunciaremos a nuestra capacidad de criticar y decir lo que opinamos. Es muy lamentable que en vez de refutarnos con argumentos busquen amedrentarnos a través de este tipo de acusaciones.
Pablo Solón, a Bolivian with a long history of radical and progressive activism, served first as its ambassador to UNASUR and later to the United Nations (Wikipedia biography|2010 Democracy Nowinterview). When the Bolivian government attacked the 2011 indigenous march in defense of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), Solón was one of several government officials to speak out, urging President Evo Morales to reconsider the proposed highway through the territory, a position he amplified once he stepped out of public service in 2012. After several years at the head of Focus on the Global South, Solón returned to working on Bolivian environmental issues at the La Paz-based Solón Foundation. Now, he has put his expertise to use challenging the government’s drive to build massive energy infrastructure projects in the Bolivian Amazon.
A year has passed since Bolivian voters denied President Evo Morales a chance at re-election in the February 21, 2016, referendum. The vote marked the first national defeat for Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party in a decade (although local election results have been mixed before). Prior to that vote, critics of the government from the left (on indigenous rights, unkept development promises, corruption, or the centralization of power) had ultimately aligned against the conservative elite. But by holding a referendum that could curtail Morales’ power without replacing him entirely, the MAS generated a de facto alliance between its left and right opponents. (A similar phenomenon contributed to the unprecedented number of blank and spoiled ballots in the 2011 Judicial Elections.)
Despite the 51.3%–48.7% defeat, the MAS has plunged ahead with a national effort to re-elect Morales, offering four strategies to legalize him running for a fourth term:
Convene a constitutional referendum by collecting signatures through citizen initiative.
Re-convene a constitutional referendum through the Plurinational Legislative Assembly
Seek a judgement from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal declaring that the president’s term limit is an unconstitutional violation of the public’s right to freely choose their leader.
Have Morales resign six months before the 2019 election to make himself eligible to run again.
Unsurprisingly, these proposals have not gone over well with either left critics or right-wing opponents of the government. With the February 21 referendum as a rallying symbol, organizations in both milieux as well as voters on social media have organized mobilizations “in defense of the vote.” You can get a sense of the tenor of these calls here:
A coalition of left grassroots signatories, including the movements behind the TIPNIS campaign, Potosí regional strikes, Guaraní protests at Takova Mora, and many other organizations put forward this document: Let’s remember why we voted no!
These mobilizations will have the slogan, February 21: Day of the Lie. This lie is mainly the false claim by President Morales’ young ex-lover Gabriela Zapata that she and the president had a son together, and (after the referendum) her procuring of a five-year-old boy to claim he was the president’s daughter. The scandal combined sex, paternity, and the whiff of trafficking in government influence: Zapata became the legal representative of Chinese corporation CAMC in Bolivia despite her youth and lack of qualifications. Zapata has been imprisoned since early last year, held on a rotating set of charges including influence peddling, kidnapping (of the presumed child), and fraud. Since their unexpected defeat, the MAS has focused attention on the story, which broke in early February 2016, as the factor that swung voters against them. On Sunday night, February 19, 2017, in a broadcast interview from jail, Zapata put forward the improbable claim that MAS political operative Wálter Chávez and long-time center-right opponent Samuel Doría Medina had invented the story of the child in 2005 to be deployed against Morales at some future date. (Former MAS official Amanda Dávila, Wálter Chávez, and Doría Medina have denied the claim.)
Bolivian politics has been marked by competing mobilizations in favor of and opposed to the government since at least 2004. Demonstrating a capacity to mobilize in large numbers is regarded as a marker of political legitimacy.