Bolivia’s Cynical Utopia

Many people have sung the praises of the progressive government that came to power in Bolivia in 2006. Under the leadership of Evo Morales, unionist and former coca grower who led the relatively new MAS party to a sweeping victory, the Bolivian government has instituted a far reaching expansion of welfare and social services, while putting an end to decades of rightwing and military rule.

But the Left has a long history of proclaiming premature victories and shielding regimes that pay lip service to their values. And while Bolivia certainly is not hiding any gulag archipelago, there is a troubling underside to this “plurinational state” that needs to be examined before we can proclaim any revolutionary victory. With an eye to Egypt, many progressives have recently warned of the danger of seeing a popular revolution where something far more sinister is going on. The Left should also revisit its long held optimism about Morales.

First of all, Bolivia’s new social programs need to be demystified. The MAS government has taken the bold yet hardly unprecedented step of withholding a small share of the hydrocarbon profits from its booming gas industry. This is indeed a step against unmitigated corporate rapaciousness, but it is not a step towards revolution. For one thing, social struggles in Bolivia had already made unmitigated corporate rapaciousness untenable before 2006. In opposition to the government of the time, they defeated major neoliberal privatization projects, first at Cochabamba and then on a nationwide scale. The MAS government has only put into policy a reality that was created by hundreds of thousands of people in direct struggle. And this policy is not even as radical as, say, the New Deal. Minus Morales’ grandiose rhetoric, it’s not even as progressive as what Norway does with its gas profits, and there’s nothing revolutionary about Norway. It’s just another capitalist country that keeps people in line with high salaries or welfare checks instead of police truncheons. The sorry lot of immigrants in that Scandinavian paradise shows that the Norwegians have not created a new society.

And neither has Bolivia. As elsewhere, the social programs are used to restructure society in the interests of control. Take the money that the MAS government gives to mothers, for example. As far as public assistance goes, it’s a great form of protection, but only mothers who see Western-style doctors throughout their pregnancy and give birth in a hospital are eligible. In a country where home births, midwives, and holistic, non-commercial medicine are still viable traditions, this policy constitutes a major assault on indigenous cultures, as the indigenous feminist group Las Imillas points out.

But most feminists and other would-be dissidents have been kept quiet by the most effective strategy the Morales government has deployed: integrating the social movements into the State itself. Key leaders from all the important grassroots groups have been given positions in government ministries or elected straight onto the MAS ticket. What might have been the object of their criticism has become their employer.

And it’s not like the Bolivian government has avoided committing any outrages that feminists might criticize. At the end of last year, two MAS deputies assaulted two indigenous cleaning women, raping one of them, at a party in a provincial legislative assembly building and in sight of numerous other deputies. The one assault was scarcely mentioned in the media, but the rape was caught on video. While the government charged the two deputies with improper use of public office, they resisted charging them with rape for half a year, and their first move was to imprison the technician who leaked the surveillance video. The cleaning woman lost her job, while the provincial governor, also a MAS member, suggested the whole scandal had been organized by the rightwing opposition, a claim some pro-government feminists allegedly echoed.

The MAS strategy to silence social movements by incorporating them into the government is not new. Journalist Rafael Uzcátegui documents, in his book Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle, how the Chavez regime that served as a major inspiration for Morales systematically institutionalized social movements and used them to protect the government from opposition, also hoodwinking international progressive celebrities like Michael Albert to become advocates for the regime. The political movements in Bolivia and Venezuela are closer to Peronism, itself a sort of gentle fascism, than to any revolutionary socialism. The link with Peronism was explicit in Kirchner’s Argentina, but in closely allied Bolivia and Venezuela it is just as evident.

The key reason why Bolivia’s MAS government cannot be considered revolutionary is because all its social programs are predicated on business-as-usual capitalist growth, whether this is the extraction of natural gas or the paving of the rainforest. They have quietly changed their much celebrated “Mother Earth” Law to allow the importation of genetically modified foods, and they have endangered the fragile altiplano ecosystem to boost their mass production of quinoa for international export.

A particularly egregious case that shows the many sinister dynamics of the Morales government at work is that of the Bioceanic Highway. The highway is one of many development projects being pushed by IIRSA, the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America, which is supported by the Inter-American Development Bank and in turn links up with NAFTA and Plan Pueblo Panama. The purpose of the highway is to link Atlantic and Pacific markets, extending from Brazil, through Bolivia, to Chile and Peru. In practical terms, the highway means an explosion in the commercialization of the South American interior and the death of the Amazon rainforest.

In Bolivia, the MAS government has plotted the highway’s route right through TIPNIS, a rainforest preserve that is also the protected home of several indigenous nations. Although MAS changed Bolivia’s constitution to make it the “plurinational state” that recognizes indigenous rights, these rights have proven to be nothing but scraps of paper. They do not guarantee indigenous access to the land or recognize the land as something other than a commodity, both prerequisites for the survival of indigenous lifeways.

Morales is an outspoken priest for the religion of progress, Western style, and in the face of local resistance he launched a major campaign to convince indigenous inhabitants of TIPNIS that the highway would be good for them. Without the highway, the government would not build any hospitals in the impoverished interior (encouraging traditional forms of healthcare was off the agenda). Despite the media blitz—after all the highway is supported by the Right and the Left—locals rejected the project in a major referendum. This was no setback for the democratic government of Morales, however. They announced they would simply prepare for a new referendum, much the same way the European Union just ignored the results when popular referenda in several member states vetoed the EU constitution. Referendum or no, construction on the highway is already in advanced stages in Bolivia, and huge swaths of rainforest have been paved over.

With a rhetoric that is surprisingly neoliberal, Morales defends the highway on the grounds that it will create more jobs. He is protected from accusations of being just another capitalist thanks to decades of work by populists in the South American Left, who have confused anti-capitalism with anti-imperialism and substituted anti-Americanism for anti-imperialism. This substitution seemed like a convenient and accurate generalization, as US capital was the biggest force in South America for a long time, but in reality it was nothing other than a disguised nationalism. Never mind that a country is more than its investors, nor that US capital has been largely overshadowed by European and Asian capital when it comes to South American development. Local capital has also become a force to be reckoned with. Case in point, the highway construction in Bolivia is being carried out by Bolivian companies and funded by Brazilian capital. For most of the supposedly anticapitalist Left in South America, this has been cause not for condemnation but for patriotic celebration.

And the celebration is a morbid one indeed. Aside from cutting the forest in half and exposing it to heavy pollution, the highway will also open it up to logging, poaching, and coca cultivation. Which is why Morales’ principal base, the Coca Growers’ Union that launched him into power, is an avid supporter of the highway. Specifically because it will allow them to cut down the rainforest and grow more coca on stolen indigenous land.

When thousands of indigenous people and their supporters protested the highway and began a multi-month march from the interior to La Paz, Morales accused them of being supported by the US government (in the process tacitly acknowledging that protest organizers’ phones had been tapped). This has been a consistent formula since 2006. Anyone protesting the government is accused to be in cahoots with the rightwing and the CIA. But the CIA is no longer necessary to protect business in South America. The new “revolutionaries” are more than capable.

In September 2011, police violently attacked the eighth indigenous march in defense of TIPNIS, injuring numerous participants, including several children. But the police are far from the most effective arms the MAS government employs for social control. Its preferred method of repression is to turn social movements against one another. MAS members and activists in the town of San Ignacio de Moxos organized a strike and blockade to try and stop the indigenous march. They also attacked a radio station that transmitted a call in support of the march. When the march finally reached La Paz, MAS mobilized the miners to oppose them. Now lured by promises that the highway would bring jobs, the same miners who had valiantly stood down the military in street fighting in 2005 now threw sticks of dynamite at indigenous marchers in front of the San Francisco church. They had already covered the walls of the city in pro-highway graffiti as the police looked on.

When some anonymous opponents of the highway began carrying out sabotage and arson actions in La Paz, the government arrested thirteen anarchists practically at random. Far to miss out on the greatest of Bush-era bandwagons, it charged them under Bolivia’s brand new anti-terrorism law. Nevermind that the social movements that defeated the rightwing regime frequently used molotovs, slingshots, heavy fireworks, and dynamite against security forces, setting fire to a bank was now to be considered terrorism, and setting off a smoke bomb in the lobby of the Vice Ministry of the Environment would be prosecuted as attempted murder against the Vice Minister.

There was no physical evidence connecting any of the arrested to the sabotage actions being prosecuted. The only reason for their arrest was that they represented a cross-section of the anarchist movement in La Paz. The prosecutor even told the mother of one of arrested that they knew he was innocent, but hoped he would give the police more information if he were locked up for long enough.

Most of the arrested were released. Of the three whom prosecutors continue to target, one was released into house arrest after collaborating with authorities, another was given house arrest in May of this year, just shy of one year in prison, and the third was released into house arrest about two months later.

As recently as July 22 of this year, the MAS government justified its practice of infiltrating the indigenous opposition to the highway. The struggle continues, but the social movements stay mum, or they actively support the highway.

The cynicism of Bolivian society only deepens as solidarity disappears, replaced by an ethos of progress and personal gain. But these newly cynical activists hold on to their practice of direct action, as when the people of San Ignacio held a strike and blockade to stop the indigenous march. While clashes like this began as a calculated government strategy to disable any opposition, they have begun to spiral out of control. In the city of Cochabamba, where groups of neighbors organized water committees to build their own water infrastructure, and then the whole city mobilized to heroically defeat the selling of the water to Bechtel, neighborhoods have begun fighting one another for control of the water.

Add to that the rampant patriotism, jingoism against Chile going back to a 19th century border war, the growing militarism, the machine gun or shotgun toting cops in front of every single bank, and you can’t help but suspect that Bolivia is more of an authoritarian dystopia than a society in the throes of a revolution. One old indigenous radical confided to me that the macho, homophobic Morales has inaugurated dozens of new football stadiums during his tenure, but has not set foot in a single theater. He also said that the president plays up his indigenous identity but opposes any meaningful autonomy for indigenous peoples.

Bolivia is a colonial creation. The patriotism that the MAS government has excelled at promoting is a commitment to continuing that colonial project. Up to 2005, women, miners, peasants, and indigenous people had effectively blocked capitalist development across the country. The supposedly revolutionary government has succeeded in renewing Western-style development on a larger scale, not just in spite of the social movements but generally with their active collaboration.

If this is the kind of example that gives people hope for the creation of a new world, we live in sorry times indeed. If this is revolution, the status quo might be preferable.

Fortunately, MAS is not the only model for liberation we can look to in South America.

To be continued next week… 

John Severino has travelled extensively in South America and organizes solidarity for social movements there. His writings can be found