“There’s a conspiracy to create the appearance that no one is governing.”
President Carlos Mesa
On May 30-31, the Bolivian capital witnessed the largest, most radical protest marches since October 2003; in a climate of institutional crisis and government paralysis, two concepts of democracy confronted one another. For President Mesa (and I’m paraphrasing here), mass mobilization in the form of civic strikes, protest marches, and road blockades is synonymous with chaos, economic disorder, political instability, subversion, criminal conspiracy, and coup plotting. For Bolivian social movements, democracy is the expansion of political participation and national sovereignty obtained via mass mobilization.
Liberal democracy and radical democracy are momentarily locked in fierce combat, with the balance tipped precariously in favor of the latter. Though Mesa’s public discourse is evermore reminiscent of predecessor Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s, his practice is substantially different; another reason why he remains in power after over a week of marches, blockades, and strikes that have shut the capital down and cut it off from the rest of the country. If Mesa decides to use lethal force, no one would be surprised if he met with the same fate as Sánchez de Lozada. But having served as Goni’s vice-president, he does not want to follow a similar trajectory.
Regional, ethnic, and class divisions (notable features of mobilization in January and March) have been sharply exacerbated, and political polarization advances accordingly, but it seems that unless Evo Morales breaks with liberal democracy, neither side can impose its collective will. Not for the first time, Morales functions as a dam against a popular flood onto the nation’s highways, into its streets and perhaps even the presidential palace. The motive force of the current wave of protest comes from the rank-and-file and mid-level cadre in El Alto and the department of La Paz, but only Morales and MAS have the potential to unite the highly fragmented social movements across the above-mentioned divides. Unless Morales and MAS call for it, as they did in March, nationwide mobilization is unlikely to materialize.
However, like all popular caudillos, Morales has a vested interest in maintaining a dynamic of limited mobilization. Currently the only effective break on popular insurrection, Morales poses as the defender of democracy in hopes of winning over the urban middle class. Here it is important to highlight his sincerity. Though the U.S. Embassy, the weak and divided Bolivian elite, and the London Economist see Morales as a wolf in sheep’s clothing — a strategic radical disguised as a tactical moderate — in rhetoric and fact Morales is the strongest defender of Bolivian democracy as presently configured. Neither he nor MAS want to see the constitutional order unravel, as both have had their sights set on the 2007 elections since 2002, when Morales nearly won the presidential race.
Whatever one thinks of the center-left electoral strategy, it is important to recognize its internal coherence. Composed of miners from Huanuni; Aymara peasants from the department of La Paz (CSUTCB-Túpaj Katari); the neighborhood association (FEJUVE) and trade union central (COR) of El Alto; and the rural and urban teacher’s union in El Alto, La Paz, and Potosí, the radical-popular bloc demands immediate nationalization of oil and gas; the resignation of the president; the closure of parliament; and a constitutional assembly.
As a result of close collaboration between social movements and the petroleum and gas professionals’ association (Codepenal), proposals for nationalization are relatively clear, at least in El Alto, and have obvious precedents. In 1937, Standard Oil was nationalized under the military populist General David Toro, and in 1969, Gulf Oil was nationalized under General Alfredo Ovando. What would come after Mesa’s resignation or the closure of parliament, in contrast, is a question that is infrequently raised and therefore largely ignored. For his part, Mesa shows no willingness to resign: in March he tendered his resignation in order to undercut social movements, not to appease them.
However, if Mesa were to resign, the head of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Díez, would become president. In light of his longstanding ties to one of two major neoliberal parties (MIR), as well as rightwing interests in his native Santa Cruz, Vaca Díez would likely prove more authoritarian, dictatorial, and bloody than Mesa. Thus far, Vaca Díez shows no signs of interest in taking power on the back of popular radicalism, although his name did come up last week in connection with unsubstantiated rumors of a rightwing conspiracy. If Mesa resigned and Vaca Díez declined to assume the presidency, it would pass to the head of the Lower House of parliament, the MNR’s Mario Cossio. He would probably refuse, too. In that case a judge from the Supreme Court would be obliged call elections. This panorama would not necessarily open space for broader political participation, and might well restrict it.
Morales and Mesa agree that shutting down parliament would be tantamount to imposing a dictatorship, and since there is no coherent, much less hegemonic alternative from the left, the demand seems impractical and unrealistic. Furthermore, Román Loayza, MAS’s caudillo of the indigenous peasant sector-who, in line with his constituency, calls for nationalization-has promised to protect parliament so it can meet to discuss the new hydrocarbons law.
Precisely because his power comes from peasant trade union federations rather than parliament, Loayza falls considerably to the left of Morales. In light of his willingness to order his followers to protect parliament, the bloc from the provinces of La Paz and El Alto would be hard pressed to shut it down. It had not been able to enter the Plaza Murillo after nearly a week’s worth of effort, particularly by miners and Aymara peasants, and FEJUVE, in spite of its official positions, had no designs on parliament and the presidential palace (both located in Plaza Murillo). Its columns stayed in the Plaza San Francisco.
In addition to marches and strikes paralyzing official business in the capital, El Alto — which spread to Sucre and Potosí — road blockades had shut down seven of Bolivia’s nine departments, further demonstrating Mesa’s inability to govern. The irony, as one sage observer noted, is that Mesa could easily bring protest and mobilization to a stop by moving the constitutional assembly forward a year to this August. That way he would not have to take responsibility for the future of Bolivian gas and petroleum, which would be decided in the assembly, and could legitimately claim to be responding to popular demands for immediate, radical change. Meanwhile, the popular movements would have a hard time cobbling together a widely accepted proposal for the design and implementation of a constitutional assembly on such short notice.
Given the fragmentation of the radical-popular movements, and their limited possibility of achieving political articulation in the absence of state violence and without support from MAS, it is difficult to imagine what Mesa is waiting for. Like Sánchez de Lozada, it may be that he is too blinded by anger, pride, and prejudice to read the popular mood or calibrate the “political time” of the current moment. On the state-owned television channel, he seems as out of touch as his predecessor was in the days leading up to his downfall. If anyone is to blame for the widely shared perception that Mesa is not governing, it is Mesa himself. Morales is not so different. Yet one could argue that unlike Mesa, Morales has made a career of being out of touch since mass uprisings began in 2003. Mesa’s distance from reality threatens his political future, while Morales’ distance would appear to secure him and his party a place at the electoral table.
Whatever happens on June 2, when parliament is scheduled to meet and debate the constitutional assembly, Bolivia’s predicament is far from unique. Radical-popular mobilization in Bolivia is now more compact and forceful than elsewhere on the politically contested South American continent, but even where social movements have altered the balance of power, the crisis of neoliberalism drags on, and a viable alternative has yet to emerge.
FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. He can be reached at email@example.com.