Twelve years after the first election of Evo Morales Ayma, Bolivia is now in a climate of economic stability, but also revived political turmoil. This summer has been marked by a long series of public mobilizations, producing a reorganization of many groups—indigenous people, farmers and trade unions—partly in reaction against the successive MAS governments.
The prospect of Morales’ candidacy in the 2019 elections, the criticisms against his government and the amendments to the Criminal Code adopted on Dec. 15 are the main factors behind the demonstrations against the president. The first ones to take to the streets were the doctors and the workers in the transport sector, affected by the changes to Art. 205 of the Criminal Code, dealing with punishments in cases of damage to health or physical integrity, and Art. 137, regarding culpable homicide in motor vehicle accidents.
In addition, the new Code also included some restrictions on social protests, as well as reduced penalties for small drug traffickers. After 47 days of conflict, the president, fearing more than anything else that the situation would be exploited by the right, repealed the new Criminal Code—but the citizens’ committees are not relenting.
They have promised to continue fighting for the enforcement of the result of the referendum on Feb. 21, 2016, a vote that made clear that it was not the will of the people of Bolivia that Morales should run for a fourth consecutive term. However, the outcome of the referendum was struck down by a decision the Constitutional Court.
For a look at the changes happening in the country and the events that the people there are living through, we interviewed Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, a sociologist and activist of Aymara descent.
Silvia, on Jan. 22, Bolivia celebrated eight years of being a multinational state. What does this change in the state framework mean today for Bolivia? Has it been a true break with the traditional nation-state model, or has it turned out to be an illusion?
The multinational state is a fiction. It is merely a discursive appropriation of the mobilizations of the early 2000s. It is enough to think about the fact that the state now recognizes 36 nationalities, of which only seven are represented in Parliament. In this state centralization process, the MAS holds a fundamental role. In some cases, like in Totora, they are sabotaging the process of building up autonomy. In others, they hijack people’s basic struggles using patronage and authoritarian methods, which on one hand helps build up the cult of Evo, and on the other hand leads to the fragmentation of organizations. In the end, the multinational state is nothing more than a disguised version of the monolithic party form that characterizes the Parliament. The real power is held by the mestizos, cholos and cochabambinos, in alliance with the army, which continues to be a colonial-style and misogynistic institution, with only contempt for the indios (i.e. the indigenous).
Do you think the protests during the past month are in response to a specific issue, that of the repeal of the Criminal Code, or is it a broader criticism of the government?
I believe that the current phase is the result of a gradual process of deterioration that already began during the first term, when the Morales government benefited from the greatest popular legitimacy. One could already see the first symptoms during that time, which nowadays we can note with greater clarity: from the obligation to be an active militant in the party for the election of constituents, to the gasolinazo [the doubling of the price of gas] in December 2010. And let us not forget the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, where the government was backing the activists for climate change, but at the same time was signing, without consultations with the local populations, contracts for the construction of the TIPNIS highway. The reaction to these events was decisively channeled in 2016 toward the powerful rejection of Evo’s 2019 candidacy.
How are the current demonstrations being organized? Are the protests being manipulated by the right, as Evo claims?
The mobilization of the people in the streets has adopted a non-party form of organization. The CONADE [National Committee for the Defense of Democracy] was reactivated, the Organic Conamaq [National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu] was constituted, the universities have mobilized, as well as protesters from various economic sectors and citizen collectives. The right uses other venues to express itself, in particular the Parliament and the press, but it certainly does not express the will of the autonomous multitude that has participated in the events in recent months.
Even though the protests are strongly critical against the Morales government, don’t you think there has been a radical break with the discourse practiced before?
Without a doubt. First of all, I would point out that Evo is not the cause of this break, but his ascent was rather the result of a long cycle of mobilizations that he cleverly capitalized on. Since 2005, we have witnessed a break in cultural terms, which involved the transformation of the condition of being indigenous, from someone despised or feared to someone with political potential. However, this potential began to erode when the government favored some of the indigenous at the expense of others, as is the case with the populations in the eastern areas, considered uncivilized and in need of control.
But what are the aspects of this break in economic terms? You have gone through hard years, and the current redistributive policies seem to be an exception in the Latin American context.
From an economic point of view, Bolivia certainly features the most radical case of redistribution of wealth in the current regional context. One must say that Evo has been able to manage very well the abundance of natural resources, which is allowing him to push his own interests while also having sufficient surplus to improve services and implement some redistribution policies that are improving the living conditions of the people. Tangible improvements have occurred in the field of social security and services, and this has given legitimacy to the government. Nevertheless, there are many state resources badly invested, particularly in health and education. Against government inefficiency, against developmentalist measures and unbridled extractivism, against bad management in the factories, rampant corruption and drug trafficking, today there is a growing search for an alternative to Evo. Citizen’s collectives are flourishing, with other forms of decision-making, which no longer trust in the party form. There are autonomous indigenous communities, rural and urban, and trade unions, which are all experimenting with other ways of doing politics.