Coming to Terms with Diversity in Bolivia


As head of Congress and the major political operator for President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera stands in the eye of a political hurricane. The changes proposed by the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) government have unleashed protest from conservative sectors of society, leading to suspension of the Constituent Assembly called to revamp the nation’s political institutions.

Garcia Linera says the conflicts are to be expected, as Bolivian society takes on “the two conquests of equality”-political rights for indigenous peoples and economic equality through a redistribution of national wealth. He calls the Morales administration a “government of social movements” and describes the goals to build “institutions that allow us to recognize our pluralism” and “generate minimal levels of access to opportunities and resources.”

LC: The government of Evo Morales came to power with the symbolic force of being the first indigenous president in the country, and has promised to address an historic backlog of demands for indigenous rights. But the government also faces the challenge of achieving some degree of unity to carry out deep transformations in society. In practice, how do you reconcile these two responsibilities?

AGL: The presence of the first indigenous president is without a doubt the most important symbolic break in the last centuries in Bolivia because it re-establishes a principle of equality that had been denied by colonial and neo-colonial practices and certain customs and mentalities in society.

But soon we saw that while political equality was advancing, the challenge remained to expand advances in political equality into other realms, in this case, the economic realm in the form of a new redistribution of wealth. The society required that both these tasks be taken on together-political equality and the recognition of the equality of indigenous peoples, their culture, and their language; but also a redistribution of wealth to improve peoples’ access to resources.

And that’s where the job of President Morales’ government has gotten complicated.

LC: Why is that?

AGL: In other societies, political equality is not necessarily accompanied by an immediate effort to redistribute wealth. South Africa is a case in point: there was a huge battle for political equality and a slower process of redistribution or economic equality. In the case of Bolivia, the two tasks had to be taken on simultaneously.

The more privileged sectors felt obliged by modernity and general advances to accept political equality, but to accept redistribution of wealth is another matter. It generates more resistance from groups that are accustomed not only to holding positions of power but also to a form of allotment that traditionally set aside public resources with their families’ names on them.

This is the most difficult part of what we’ve taken on-the two conquests of equality. But the fact that there was already a democratic and redistributive agenda proposed by society since the year 2000 meant we had to assume both tasks simultaneously, with the all the difficulties that you’re seeing in these days and weeks-all predictable, of course.

LC: How do you convince or obligate sectors with historic privileges to cede privileges in order to establish this new state and society?

AGL: It requires on the part of the most privileged sectors-not “generosity”-because in politics and economics that term doesn’t exist-but a strategic viewpoint. This isn’t a movement that at any time seeks to annul privileges. This is a movement that seeks to generate minimal levels of access to opportunities and resources.

From a strategic point of view, the most privileged sectors would understand that the best way to preserve part of their privileges is to cede part of their privileges. But when they are not willing to cede a part of these privileges, what that does is generate pressure that’s more and more adverse to them, with the risk that all their privileges could be affected.

The program of the underclasses of Bolivia doesn’t propose the socialization of all wealth or property. This type of proposals still hasn’t emerged in Bolivia. What you see is the demand for opportunities, a demand to take part in the distribution of resources. I haven’t seen anyone who’s saying “we have to take all the land away from the hacendados (large landowners).” They say, “We also have a right to have land.” Same with natural resources, water, or oil. Nobody is proposing “we want to expropriate oil and gas and kick out all foreign companies” but rather “we want to be included in the profits from these resources.”

And in fact, the measures we’ve taken-nationalization of hydrocarbons that didn’t expropriate fixed assets but recuperated the property and decision-making capacity over gas and petroleum-demonstrate the society’s and the government’s strategy.

The key for privileged sectors resides not in looking to the future in one year, but to see the future in 10, 20, or 30, or 50 years. This strategic point of view is what could help this process of redistribution of wealth and lead to a coming together, but in a more balanced way and not with the scandalous distances in terms of property and money that we still see in Bolivia.

LC: There has been talk of a growing political and social polarization in the country. Do you agree with this assessment of the present moment?

AGL: Ethnic, class, and regional differences in Bolivia are not recent, they didn’t appear this year or even in the last five or 10 years. They run throughout our entire history as a republic.

The novelty today is that for the first time the society is forced to look at itself in the mirror, and it has to see its limitations, its cracks, its weaknesses. Exclusion and confrontation have been recurrent throughout our history-there have been uprisings, massacres in the Bolivian society every 10, 15 years. The ethnic, cultural, and regional differences in our Bolivian society, today visible all at once, are not recent products. They are old wounds that have been present in our history and were never healed, fissures whose resolution was always avoided and that now have appeared simultaneously. Now it’s up to this generation-I’m not saying “this government”-to this generation, to this society-to resolve issues that couldn’t be resolved in 182 years of political life as an independent republic.

There’s no reason to be afraid of these tensions because they’re tensions that we’ve experienced before. The real problem would be if we didn’t resolve them, if we just did what past governments have done and swept them under the rug.

Because this is the historic opportunity for society to be sincere with itself; it’s the opportunity for a rebirth of its collective spirit based on who we really are, and not the illusion of who we want to be, as the elites have always imposed before in this country.

LC: Given the divisions, do you still think it’s feasible to agree on a new constitution with major changes, or will it be necessary to accept more minor reforms?

AGL: The Constituent Assembly is conceived of to create an institutional order that corresponds to the reality of who we are. Up to now, every one of the 17-18 previous constitutions has tried to copy the latest institutional fashion-French, U.S., European. And it was clear that it didn’t fit us, because these institutions correspond to other societies. We are indigenous and non-indigenous, we are modern and traditional, we are liberal and communitarist, we are a profoundly diverse society regionally and a hybrid in terms of social classes. So we have to have institutions that allow us to recognize that pluralism.

This is the great challenge of the Constituent Assembly. And that’s why we are confident that it will meet its goals, in spite of the difficulties, with this idea of expressing the real society and projecting that in institutional and normative terms for the coming decades.

LC: You have spoken of diversity not only in terms of the need to recognize it in a new form of institutionality but also as the guiding principle of a new social pact. Reading the newspapers these days, diversity seems to be more a factor of division. How do you move toward this vision of strength through diversity?

AGL: Sometimes the press focuses the cameras only on the differences. Then you see a country that appears to be on the verge of a breakdown because all actors want to assert their own identities and differences at the same time.

We’ve always been divided. It’s just that now we’re seeing ourselves with all our divisions and tendencies. The illusion of a monolithic, cohesive unity has broken like a glass thrown to the ground. And it can never be put back together. We can’t go back to living with illusions.

The key for all the groups is to affirm their difference, but at the same time produce a will to unity-to an agreed-on unity, not an imposed or merely superficial unity. Sure, at first it’s scary, as everyone begins to wake up to the fact that they are different from the other, and to assume that difference and not to hide it. But that’s the first step in building real unity.

The second step is, based on the affirmation of differences, to affirm what we have in common. Without a doubt, the indigenous and peasant movements have been the most lucid in taking these steps. To give you an example: it would be very easy for the indigenous and peasant movement to demand the right of each community, each culture, each nationality to the control and ownership of natural resources. Even the UN declaration recognizes that right-to land, forests, gas, and oil.

But what you see is that at the same time as they affirm their diversity, they are also asserting unity when they say “we have to nationalize hydrocarbons” in the sense of a collective “I” that is above the particular language, culture, or region. The proposal to nationalize gas and oil didn’t come from intellectuals or from the middle classes. It came out of the popular movements, mostly indigenous and peasant movements. So the sector that most affirms its difference is the one that also affirms the principle of unity around a material collective “I.” Not a fictitious one, not just symbols and rites, but in real actions: the assembly, nationalization of hydrocarbons, and redistribution of wealth.

LC: You mention the responsibility of social movements. Other progressive governments, brought to power by grassroots movements, have been criticized for subsequently sidelining those movements. How do you conceive the role of social movements in the Morales government?

AGL: We consider this to be a government of social movements. Even though that means there are tensions, because government and state are by definition a process of centralization of decisions and, by definition, a social movement is a process of socialization and collective diffusion of decision-making. What’s interesting is to ride on that tension. That’s the novelty of the process.

You’ll ask: But how do you back up this claim to be a government of social movements? On four levels, from the most general to the most specific.

The most general: the program of changes and transformations in the government is the program proposed by grassroots mobilizations over the last 15 years. What the government of President Morales has done is to practically transcribe into decree or law what was collectively developed by society itself through social movements. Land, hydrocarbons, Constituent Assembly, the issue of autonomies, redistribution of wealth, process of industrialization, and so many things still pending-all the big decisions of this government have been historically proposed over the past 10 years by the social movements.

The second level is that for the government’s major decisions-all of them, without exception-we’ve consulted with the leadership of the different social movements. There isn’t one important measure that isn’t marked by a process of feedback and consultation with these sectors, because every one of these actions can only be sustained through mobilization of society, not through a bureaucratic action.

Third, in the government’s structure, you’ll find the presence of a good part of the leadership of the social movements. Whether as mayors, prefects (the provincial leadership), parliamentary representatives, constituent assemblypersons, ministers, there’s a practical, physical presence of grassroots leadership in government. To what degree they maintain their connection to their constituents is a different problem. To what degree they could become bureaucratized, is definitely a risk. But if you watch the parliament on television or the assembly, you see an enormous presence of these sectors. This is something that was unthinkable five or 10 years ago, because these were positions reserved for certain families, for elites cultivated in foreign universities, with famous last names, and a tradition of being in politics.

Fourth, although the social movement itself can’t move into government administration, the selection of government officials must meet not only criteria of merit but also approval from social movements and organizations. Here it’s equally valid to have a masters or doctorate from Harvard as to have links with the peasant federation. Yes, this can slow up certain areas of government efficiency but it’s a sign of the times.

LC: The last question: You and the president come from a background of participation in movements. What are the big surprises or unexpected challenges of coming to government?

AGL: There’s clearly a leap between the logic of mobilization and protest, to the logic of administration. However, the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) as a coalition of social organizations has experienced a learning curve and transition from strictly making demands and being a union movement, to increasingly becoming a revolutionary political entity. This started 10 years ago when the unions began to control local governments. The agrarian unions entered the mayorships and had to put to test their demands with transparency. Its not a lot of time, many parties have to spend 30 years preparing for governing. In our case, there were 10 years of training-too fast.

But for better or worse, you have there a first period of gestation of political leaders who had to combine the discourse of mobilization with the ability to govern. These leaders who were trained since the 90s in local government, several of them are now in parliament and even Vice Ministers.

Also, this social movement matures very quickly starting in about 2000, moving from confrontational strategies to proposing designs for the nation. It isn’t usual, even in the history of Bolivia, to see this kind of political maturation. Increasingly in the mobilizations and protests the issues that you go to dialogue with the government are no longer “how can I get something for my sector?” but “how can I change Bolivia?” The Constituent Assembly emerged as a grassroots demand in 2000, recuperation of the hydrocarbon sector since 2003, a new law on land since 1999-there were already well-developed general guidelines for defining public goods.

Although there have been difficulties, which we’ve admitted publicly, it still is remarkable what we’ve achieved with these decisions: economic growth, modification of the economic structure of society, and implementation-albeit gradual-of some things at the social level.

I believe it’s a healthy process and full of vitality, and has good possibilities of success.

LAURA CARLSEN (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org) is director of the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) in Mexico where she has worked as a writer and political analyst for two decades.

The full interview is available on www.americaspolicy.org or by emailing americas(a)ciponline.org.



Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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