NACLA/NYU panel on the Bolivian election and challenges to come — 17 November 2020

The North American Congress on Latin America and New York University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies hosted me on a panel on the 2020 Bolivian elections and the challenges that await the MAS-IPSP government, on Tuesday, November 17. The video is online here.

Bolivia’s Electoral Victory: What Challenges Lie Ahead For MAS?

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President Luis Arce’s economic model (and its limits)

Luis Arce Catacora, the economic architect of the Movement Towards Socialism during Evo Morales’ fourteen-year presidency, will take power today as Bolivia’s sixty-seventh president. Arce and incoming Vice President] David Choquehuanca were two of the longest-serving ministers in Evo’s cabinet (both from 2006 to 2017) and they stood at the core, respectively, of the party’s socialist and plurinational projects during those years.

When the Morales government came to power, it was haunted by the spectre of economic failure under the last center-left government, the 1982 to 1985 UDP government of Hernán Siles Zuazo. Morales turned to Arce, an economist who had worked in the Bolivian Central Bank since 1987, to lead his economic policy. Arce faced an incredible challenge: to thread the needle between popular demands for redistribution and an international credit market wary of leftist populism.

The markets were already trembling: Morales was already a bogeyman of demagogic populism. He was vilified by American diplomats for the coca leaf’s connection to narcotics and stereotyped domestically as an uninformed peasant ignorant of diplomatic protocol and economic realities. Moreover, Morales proposed a “21st century socialism” as his economic project. Everything that was an anathema to neoliberal technocrats seemed to be packaged together.

And yet, the new Morales government was far from ignorant of global economic or political realities. It still needed foreign credit, still lived in a hemisphere politically and militarily dominated by the United States, and still sought international investment. The spectre of dangerous populism, and the historical shadow of the 1982–86 hyperinflation, threatened all of those relationships. The Bolivian government could not afford to be downgraded in international bond markets, isolated like a new Cuba, or spurned by transnational corporate investors. And so, the government sent clear signals to global powers about just what its brand of populism would entail.

One unlikely emissary was Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a Marxist intellectual and former guerrilla, who spoke at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2006. “We are not,” the Vice President pledged, “a populist government with easily opened pockets and cheap promises.” He highlighted the government’s “austerity” with its officials, who would no longer put money in offshore accounts (unlike their notoriously corrupt predecessors), and its “responsible management of macroeconomics.” This was Arce’s portfolio.

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MAS-IPSP leaders, celebrating victory, pledge to turn the page from Evo Morales

Mr. Arce has positioned himself as a transition candidate, vowing to carry on Mr. Morales’s legacy, while training younger leaders from his party to take the reins.

“We are MAS 2.0,” he said in an interview shortly before the election.

He added that Mr. Morales would have no role in his government.

Turkewitz, Julie. “Evo Morales Is Out. His Socialist Project Lives On.” The New York Times, October 19, 2020, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/world/americas/morales-arce-bolivia-election.html.

At the end of a long Election Day evening, Luis Arce Catacora stepped forward to claim victory in Bolivia’s presidential elections. Two coinciding preliminary counts coincided in estimating he had a 20-point advantage in the contest, nearly double his best pre-election polls and the 10% margin he needed to avoid a runoff. In all likelihood, Arce and vice presidential candidate David Choquehuanca will garner an absolute majority of valid votes. Many are rightly viewing their victory as a vindication for Bolivia’s largest political party and a demonstration of the continued power of its grassroots base. The election campaign was conducted under the shadow of an anti-MAS-IPSP government and a punishing global pandemic, with many of the party’s leaders in jail or exiled, by far the most adverse circumstances the party had faced since at least 2002.

Arce and Choquehuanca appear to have gained rather than lost electoral ground since the October 2019 general election, and likely even more since the nationwide protest wave that followed. Voters and political organizations that abandoned the MAS-IPSP ticket in 2019 returned to it in significant numbers, largely in the highland departments of La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí, as well as central Chuquisaca. It should be clear to all that Arce/Choquehuanca led a more successful bid than did forcibly exiled president Evo Morales (nominally their “campaign chief” from Argentina). If you listen closely to their statements before and after the election, it becomes apparent that they won in substantial part by keeping the former president at a distance and promising a new era in socialist government, free of the mistakes of the past.

In a global environment in which many are eager to read the election as a referendum on Evo Morales, I am writing here to highlight just how hard the MAS-IPSP leadership of 2020 is working (and has worked) to separate itself from its former leader, and why that separation may have endeared it to a sometimes disenchanted electorate and grassroots base.

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Bolivia’s 2020 presidential candidates: A very quick guide

Party/
Alliance
Presidential CandidateVice Presidential Candidate
MAS-IPSPLuis Arce Catacora undefinedundefined
finance minister, 2005–19
David Choquehuancaundefinedundefined
foreign minister, 2005–17
CCCarlos Mesa Gisbertundefinedundefined
president, 2003–05
Gustavo Pedraza Méridaundefinedundefined
planning minister, 2004-05
FPVChi Hyun Chungundefinedundefined
doctor, Baptist pastor
Leopoldo Chui
lawyer, El Alto prosecutor
Juntos
Jeanine Áñezundefinedundefined
interim president
Samuel Doria Medinaundefinedundefined
planning minister, 1991–93
CreemosLuis Fernando Camachoundefinedundefined
Santa Cruz civic movement
Marco Antonio Pumariundefinedundefined
Potosí civic movement
Libre 21Jorge Tuto Quirogaundefinedundefined
president, 2001–02
Tomasa Yarhuiundefinedundefined
rural affairs minister, 2001–02
PAN-BOLFeliciano Mamani
Cooperative Miners Federation
Ruth Nina
police spouses association
ADN
Withdrawn.
Ismael Schabibundefined
Navy admiral
Remberto Siles
Army general

Today, February 3 was the deadline for Bolivian parties to submit their candidate lists for the May 3 general election, which replaces the annulled October 2019 vote. Here is a summary of the parties, their political situation, and their candidates.

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Understanding the end of the Evo Morales majority

The 2020 follow-up is here: How the Arce/Choquehuanca ticket reclaimed the pre-2016 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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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.