Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Bolivia’s Organic Grassroots

Just published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Bjork-James, Carwil. 2018. Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Boliva’s Organic Grassroots (full text). Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 23, no. 2 (July): 363–82. Abstract: Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical […]

Bolivian government and opposition coalitions to march on referendum anniversary

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:

  1. Convene a constitutional referendum by collecting signatures through citizen initiative.
  2. Re-convene a constitutional referendum through the Plurinational Legislative Assembly
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  • afiche_no
    Independent left ‘Bolivia Voted No’ image demands: Respect the citizens’ vote.

    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!

  • Pre-February 21 mobilizations have included this protest in La Paz on February 1.
  • On February 21, mass meetings called cabildos have been called for major plazas in departmental capitals across the country.

Conversely, the government and its close movement allies have been preparing their own counter-mobilizations to occur on the same day (or the previous night).

bolivia_21f_dia_de_la_mentira
Pro-MAS image asks “What happened on February 21? A series of media attacks against Evo Morales.”

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.

Bolivian government tells investors: “The era of nationalization has already finished.”

“We have now finished the legal framework in order to invite foreign investment to come to Bolivia. This legal framework is mainly composed by three things, the Law of Investments, the Law of Public Companies, and the Law of Conciliation and Arbitrage. These three laws have been already finished. They have been also conciliated, elaborated […]

Bolivia voters set a limit on President Evo Morales

As previewed on this blog, Bolivians went to the polls on February 21 to decide on whether the 2009 Constitution should be amended to allow Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in 2020. There was strong participation, with 84.45% of registered voters going to the polls (a stronger showing than the 2015 regional election, but below the turnout in the last national vote). The result was a narrow but convincing defeat for Morales and the MAS party: 51.30% of voters rejected the constitutional change. (Final results)

Here are five quick things to take away from this result.

  1. This vote on Evo Morales getting a fourth term wasn’t to some extent a referendum on Evo Morales, but it was not a referendum on leftism, indigeneity, or standing up to neoliberalism. Evo’s personal image took a major hit with the revelation of his affair with Gabriela Zapata, a young law student in 2006 and 2007 who later became a well-paid representative of CAMC, a major government contractor. This scandalous revelation brought a whiff of corruption to the president in the final week of campaigning. Meanwhile, a deadly arson apparently set by pro-government protesters in the El Alto city hall undermined the standing of the governing Movement Towards Socialism party.
  2. Despite these winds, public perception of Evo Morales remained fairly positive. Polls showed his approval at 58%, far ahead of the support level for term extension. So, a significant fraction of the public supports him in his third term, but refuses to grant him a fourth. A narrative, transplanted from Venezuela, of collapsing support for a leftist goverment simply does not apply to the Bolivian referendum.
  3. The NO campaign on the referendum united left and indigenous critics of the government, advocates of rotating leadership, and right-wing opposition. This kind of tacit alliance has never fully coalesced before, although it appeared to some extent in the successful, if ineffectual, calls for blank or null ballots in the 2012 judicial elections. It also is highly unlikely for these forces to come together again in national elections. Nonetheless, the referendum did prompt a number of left dissidents to step forward as possible participants in 2019 elections. It remains to be seen which of their political projects will endure, win ballot access, and compete in that contest.
  4. The MAS and the YES campaign have lost Potosí. While all four of the western capital cities—La Paz, Oruro, Cochabamba, and Potosí —voted agaist the referendum, the poor and left-identified city of Potosí did so overwhelmingly. Over 85% of Potosinos refused to back another term for Morales. The department was once a MAS stronghold and has no significant right-wing presence, but its capital has spearheaded major protest campaigns in 2010 and 2015 demanding greater investment and new jobs. Serious disenchantment with the national government has set in.
  5. The MAS has a major challenge in candidate selection for 2019. It simply hasn’t been cultivating middle-level leaders to become national figures. There are certainly high-level party loyalists, like Silvia Lazarte, and a few long-time cabinet members, including David Choquehuanca, but no obvious successor to Evo. Meanwhile, numerous prominent MAS members of the past have gone from rising stars, to despised free thinkers (libre pensantes), to ex-members of the party. Still, Bolivia’s presidential runoff system and demographic composition makes it very difficult for a right-wing or anti-indigenous candidate to win. The interesting question is whether a left outsider could make it into that second round.

Other commentary on the results:

A Tale of Two Bolivian Mayors in Trouble with the Law

The following post was written on 3 August 2010 and distributed elsewhere. Since then, two of the three non-MAS governors have been suspended following indictment. At the municipal level, a complicated sequence of indictments, suspensions, public pressures, and (finally in December 2011) special elections have played out. I’m reposting this as background to the politics of recent months.

Under Bolivian law, public officials under indictment may be removed from office. This has created a cascade of controversial suspensions and resignations across the country. So far, the most dramatic cases have been the mayors of Sucre and Potosí, whose very different crimes illustrate the broad scope of the law, and the consequences (perhaps unexpected) of multiple laws that reduce public officials’ discretion.

On April 4, Sucre elected Jaime Barrón as its new mayor. Barrón, the rector of the country’s oldest university had headed the Inter-Institutional Committee, something like an expanded Chamber of Commerce. The Committee threw itself into the political arena in 2006, demanding that all governmental powers be restored to the small, colonial city, and allying itself with the right-wing political opposition in the east of the country. Protests in support of this demand escalated into attempts to shut down the Consituent Assembly, and physical attacks on MAS-affiliated members of the assembly, particularly female representatives who wore traditional indigenous dress.

In May 2008, the Inter-Institutional Committee mobilized again, this time to prevent President Morales from coming to Sucre to attend a ceremony distributing ambulances to rural mayors in Chuquisaca, the department of which Sucre is the capital. Clearly under orders to show maximum restraint, the national police withdrew from the stadium where they were confronted by angry crowd, consisting in large part of students from Barrón’s university. Evo Morales cancelled his visit, leaving the peasant leaders who came to Sucre to endure the crowd’s wrath. That wrath played out over the ensuing hours, during which many of the peasants were surrounded inside a house, threatened with death, and escorted downtown by the crowd. In the central square, on live television, they were publicly humiliated, stripped to their underwear, forced to kneel, to kiss the colonial Chuquisaca flag, and to chant anti-Evo and anti-MAS slogans, under pressure of kicks and blows. The day has become one of the most infamous examples of racist violence in recent Bolivian history.

Pro-MAS informants I interviewed a month later claimed that Barrón used the university to encourage and organize students into such militant street groups. César Brie’s documentary on the day’s events shows Barrón as part of an Inter-Institutional Committee delegation that arranged the police force’s departure. And an a parliamentary inquiry found that Barrón joined in May 20 planning meeting to prevent Morales arrival, supplied transport in official university vehicles and weapons to the clash groups, and observed without intervening the public humiliation.

As a result, prosecutors indicted Barrón for a number of crimes in late April. Barrón took office the following month, but quickly ran afoul of the Municipalities Law, whose Article 48 forbids formally indicted officials from remaining in office. The Municipal Council formally removed Barrón on June 23, and controversially voted to replace him with a member of the MAS party, Verónica Berríos. For one chaotic day, June 24, supporters of Barrón and his PAÍS party stormed into the CIty Hall and physically prevented Berríos from entering the Mayor’s Office. Berríos announced her willingness to govern the city from an office in an outlying district strongly aligned with her party. However, the following day, Barrón called on his forces to pull back and recognized his own suspension. Nearly a month later, he announced his final resignation from office, thereby requiring a new election to fill the office (Berríos is only the Interim Mayor). That, however, is five months away fifteen months away.

Orchestrating a public, physical attack on one’s political opponents is one extreme of the application of the “suspension of authorities” provision of Bolivian law. At the other extreme is the current situation of Potosí’s mayor, René Joaquino. Joaquino is the founder of the independent left party Social Alliance, and has served as the highland city’s mayor since 1996. He, too, is under indictment, but in his case the charge is the irregular purchase of used cars for the Municipality, in 2006. Joaquino does not deny the purchase, which he claims saves the municipal government money over the previous practice of renting vehicles. A demonstration in support of him in April included the public display of the municipal vehicles involved.

Last week, the issue reached the suspension stage in Potosí’s city council, in which supporters of Joaquino have a majority. However, they felt themselves constrained by a provision of law which allows public officials to be sued for “fulfillment of responsibilities” if they fail to carry out their legal mandates. In an attempt to prevent Joaquino’s suspension, scores of his supporters also massed into city hall, and conducted a sit-in to prevent the City Council from meeting. The following day, the Civic Committee of Potosí (Comcipo) began a department-wide strike and road blockade campaign over a series of unrelated regional demands. The national government, however, has accused Comcipo of conducting the strike in political support of Joaquino. Comcipo representatives completely discount this, saying if Joaquino is convicted, he must go to jail. The prosecutor, likewise, denies political motivations in making the used car purchasing charge.

Looming on the horizon are a series of potential prosecutions of primarily opposition lawmakers. The most directly political of these involve the 2008 referendums held in the media luna departments (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija) to approve their controversial statutes of autonomy. At the time, the government and the indigenous/popular movement held that these votes were unconstitutional and boycotted the votes. Recently, the prospect of holding the departmental governments, and their highest officials, liable for misuse of public funds in holding these referendums has come ever closer to reality. This would involve putting sitting governors of three departments—which is every governor not belonging to the MAS—on trial.

Somewhere between the alleged crimes of Jaime Barrón and of René Joaquino lies the boundary of “high crimes.” However, in today’s Bolivia, indictment rather than impeachment is the mechanism for suspending officials from office, and a lower standard is in play. Political conflicts are increasingly being played out in the prosecutor’s office. And formal complaints are often threatened or filed in the midst of verbal disputes between politicians. (For instance, Ruben Costas, who also could be indicted for the Santa Cruz referendum, baselessly accused Vice President Álvaro García Linera of narcotrafficking, for which the Vice President has now presented a charge of defamation.) At the same time, both these cases illustrate that public protest, outside or inside City Hall, also determines the outcome of these political struggles.

MAS campaign to reverse agreement, build highway through TIPNIS reaches legislature today

The campaign by Evo Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party to resume construction of a controversial new highway (background: 1 2 3 wikipedia) through the protected Isiboro Securé National Park and Indigenous Territory enters a critical phase today. While a pro-highway march has just reached Caracollo (Oruro), a six-day march away from the capital, the Bolivian Plurinational Legislative Assembly will take up consideration of the march’s demands today. The march, officially led by CONISUR, an organization of indigenous people living in the southern, colonized zone of TIPNIS, has had open support of the MAS from the start. Its legitimacy has also been called into question by the national indigenous confederation CIDOB and a wide swath of Bolivian media from the right to the independent left, including the community radio network Erbol.

Erbol has an informative run-down today of the “five MAS strategies to achieve the construction of the TIPNIS highway” since it signed an agreement with the Subcentral TIPNIS, CIDOB, and CONAMAQ to shelve the project in October. These strategies are:

  • A December 9 rally in Cochabamba in support of construction, organized by the Governor’s office of Cochabamba. Work hours throughout the department were adjusted to assure attendance, and government officials spoke out about being obliged to attend.
  • The CONISUR march, begun December 19/20 at Isinuta, on the edge of TIPNIS.
  • The December 16 suspension of Beni governor Ernesto Suarez Sattori, indicted for governmental financial irregularities. Suarez had been the most prominent official in the region to criticize the project and showed a willingness to support alternate routes for the road. His successor, Haisen Ribera Leigue, is a right-wing legislator who has since been disavowed by his party for joining the MAS vote to suspend Suarez. Ribera has joined the call to annul the law protecting TIPNIS, and build the road.
  • The Plurinational Encounter to Deepen the Change, a three-part “consultation with civil society” on the part of the Bolivian executive branch, included the highway in its agenda for Cochabamba and Beni. The meeting was boycotted by the indigenous federations CIDOB and CONAMAQ as part of the fracturing of the Pact of Unity (wikipedia).
  • The effort to annul the law in the legislature, which will begin today. Eleven legislators who met with the CONISUR marchers will make their report today, after which relevant legislation will be gestated in committee. The MAS Cochabamba delegation has already pledged to support reversing the protection of TIPNIS. Senate President René Martínez claims to have a 2/3 majority in support of the iniciative, a claim that others contest in light of indigenous and Without Fear Movement legislators withdrawing from the MAS delegation.
  • Plus (not cited by Erbol): The government continues to stall on its agreement with the CIDOB and Subcentral TIPNIS to put forward official regulations for the law protecting the territory.

While no vote is expected today, the engagement of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly on the issue of reversing the protection of TIPNIS marks a culminating moment in the MAS strategy to go ahead with the road. The government continues to ignore alternate routes for connecting Cochabamba and Beni that fall outside of the indigenous territory and national park, and continues to make winning this fight a political priority. The time for environmental and indigenous rights supporters to turn their attention back to this issue is now.

What’s behind the Potosí regional strike?

As the department-wide strike in Potosí continues to edge into the international press (primarily through its effect on tourists and now upon mining companies that operate in the region), I want to give more of the background on the strike and its demands, so it’s at least understandable why people are blockading and hunger striking there.

“It can be summed up in one single thing: in misery. … We are fighting for a hill that as of yet is not a factory, just a hill; it’s raw material. For the dream that some time we, that the families that live there, might have something. They are places forgotten by the hand of God: they don’t have water. They are using up the water in the wells. There is no electricity. It is misery.”
Saúl Juarez, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba

If you are from North America, this use of misery might be unfamiliar to you, but it is common in the language of Latin America. We must first organize, then-Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide once said, to move from misery to poverty. Here in the hemisphere’s second-poorest country (after Haiti), Potosí is the poorest of nine departments. The rate of extreme poverty, which is falling nationwide, is still 66.7%; meaning that two-thirds of Potosinos cannot afford to buy their family’s basic necessities. Of every 1000 live births there, 101 children will die before their fifth birthday. Both of these figures are the highest in Bolivia; in the case of child mortality, the second place departments—La Paz and Chuquisaca—see 63 deaths per 1000 children. It is for this reason that Potosinos have spread to the rest of the country in search of better opportunities.

“We can say that we are fighting for the reactivation of the productive apparatus of Potosí.”
Claudia López, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba

Most of the demands advanced by the Potosí mobilization are focused on specific industrial or economic projects, which in the eyes of protesters, have languished for the lack of state interest. The boundary dispute with Oruro centers around two hills that contain limestone, a key ingredient for cement, and a second demand is for a cement plant to earn money and create jobs from that resource. Likewise, Potosinos are calling for the activation of a metallurgy plant and for the creation of an international airport to connect Uyuni and its phenomenal salt flats to international tourists.

Potosí, of course, is not poor for the simple lack of investment from the outside. It has never simply languished in the absence of foreign interest. Instead, it was once the largest the city in the Western world precisely because of the rich attraction its mineral wealth held for the Spanish state and its investors. Immense wealth was symbolized by the Cerro Rico which sits above the city, or simply by the phrase “it’s worth a Potosí.” Every Bolivian, rich or poor, left or right, knows how Bolivian wealth enriched Spain, and through it Europe. And every Bolivian understands that to take part in that wealth requires doing more than extracting minerals from the ground and shipping them out of the country.

More recently, Potosí was hit hard by the shock-therapy program of neoliberal economic restructuring that began in 1985. At the time, the miners who worked for COMIBOL—the national mining company that took over the mines run by three wealthy tin barons in 1952—were the strongest social movement in the country. The government of Paz Estenssoro aimed to break this power, and essentially shut down the government-run mining sector to do so, laying off tens of thousands of workers. Those miners who did not resettle elsewhere in the country became the backbone of the cooperative mining sector, a collection of small scale mining projects that engage in uncoordinated mining of the Cerro Rico, and other mountains like it, in search of rich veins of minerals. Decades of such drilling have brought the Cerro to the brink of structural collapse, posing the threat that the hill—recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO—could become a ruin.

“They all come to promise and promise, and to say this and that could be done. The [current] government has done the same: it has promised. But after five years of their rule, of creating new laws and a new constitution, of re-electing them, there is nothing. … So, we want dates; we want concrete responses of when and how; we want specific studies; we want operational plans that establish dates for the processes that are going to happen.”
Claudia López

If one had to choose a symbol of the capacity for delay in pursuing development projects in Bolivia, it might well be Karachipampa, the metallurgical plant that the mobilization is demanding to be activated. This lead and silver smelter was built between 1985 and 1988. It has never operated.

Several years ago, in 2005, the Canadian firm Atlas Precious Metals Inc. entered a shared-risk agreement to invest in the plant. You can see on their web page an optimistic assessment of the plant’s production capacity. As of April, only 20% of the firm’s promised investment had been realized (article in Spanish). Currently, Atlas and COMIBOL are in a legal dispute in which Atlas demands its $12 million investment be repaid, and COMIBOL seeks compensation for the value of the plant, which remains unused. In a letter to the government (es), the Potosinista Civic Committee washes its hands of the whole dispute and demands:

The only thing the Potosí people want is to see, in an immediate manner, the effective functioning of the Karachipampa Plant, whether it is with the [foreign] company or through state intervention.

Beyond all these details, the strongest emotion visible here is simple, exhausted, impatience. Whether the timeline is 21 years for the plant, or 5 years for the MAS government, or three generations for the border dispute (more on that when I can provide a fuller background, or transcribe more of my interview with a Coroma resident), those who have thrown themselves into this protest have run out of patience. Against the experience of delay, they have enacted tactics based on urgency: extended blockades, hunger strikes, and so on. So far, Potosinos themselves, beginning with the hunger strikers have borne most of the costs of these urgent tactics themselves, or imposed them on the surrounding communities. However, they are increasingly enacting or talking about tactics that will cost companies operating in the region substantial losses on a daily basis.