Left populism in the heart of South America:
From plurinational promise to a renewed extractive nationalism
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
According to many analysts, popular exhaustion with neoliberal economic policies is responsible for the rise of right-wing populism in the global North. The new populists of the right have capitalized on working-class disillusionment with an elite political consensus on a form of global economic integration that prioritized transnational corporations over workers and local control. In South America, this exhaustion came over a decade earlier in the wake of the financial and debt crises of the late 1990s. Angry crowds from the left carried out a wave of disruptive protests beginning in 1999, toppling governments in Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and leading to a nearly continent-wide electoral shift to the left, the so-called “pink tide.” In Bolivia and Ecuador, antineoliberal governments also defined themselves as antiracist movements that put indigenous peoples and their rights at the center of new “plurinational” political orders. Alongside pink tide governments in Venezuela, Brazil, and Uruguay, they moved to dramatically renationalize and redistribute resource wealth to the poorest members of society.
Yet by the mid-2010s, the pink tide was receding, losing electoral strength, undergoing economic collapse in Venezuela, or falling before hostile political maneuvers in Paraguay and Brazil. By contrast, the continued political strength of Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism and Ecuador’s Alianza PAÍS seem much more secure, at least through the current terms of Presidents Evo Morales and Lenín Moreno. A 2014 Washington Post profile of Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa pointed to “a new model of Latin American leadership: economically populist, socially conservative, quasi-authoritarian — and seemingly unbeatable at election time.” This characterization, minus the social conservatism, increasingly applies to Bolivia’s government led by Aymara coca grower’s union leader Evo Morales. In both countries, left governments have maintained populist redistributive policies funded by accelerated exports of hydrocarbons, minerals, and industrial-scale agriculture. In so doing, they have traded their tight connections with radical movements of the poor and marginalized for working relationships with domestic economic elites and transnational investors. Beyond their borders, they have connected to capitalist economic circuits with new centers in the global South, becoming part of the BRICS-led “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics” identified by Vijay Prashad. In the process, these left populists have increasingly put the nation, centralized power, and limits on dissent ahead of the multicultural and decentralized principles they once championed. Those still frustrated with the national economic path are, for the moment, fragmented between visionary, but minority, tendencies on the left and a neoliberal and decidedly non-populist right.
This chapter examines the consolidation of durable, if less transformative, left nationalism in South America by tracing the experience of Bolivia. The political experiment led by Evo Morales’ party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) must be understood within a conjuncture of political, economic and social movement factors that shaped its possibilities. This chapter surveys each of these in turn.
First, like the rest of the pink tide, the MAS-IPSP’s rule emerged as part of popular rejection of neoliberal globalization, the policy approach that dominated Latin America beginning in the 1980s. Both moderate social-democratic and radical socialist policies were conceivable responses, and the Morales government—together with its Ecuadorian and Venezuelan counterparts—foregrounded the more radical course in its early years. Significantly, it combined its left turn with a bold turn towards indigenous-led plurinationalism. However, the neoliberal model had itself been a counterpoint to so-called “dangerous left populism,” under whose aegis Bolivia had plunged into economic crisis in the mid-1980s. I show how the MAS-IPSP sought to demonstrate that its program was a fiscally responsible left populism. The essential basis for this program was export revenue from hydrocarbons, minerals, and agricultural commodities. This populist economic program led to concrete poverty reduction, and material and symbolic rewards for the public, who ratified the MAS project, turning back a racially divisive opposition challenge in 2008 and 2009. However, this central commitment to resource-driven redistribution drew the government ever closer to conventional capitalist industries, and away from social and communitarian economic experiments, and from recognition of indigenous territorial rights.
As I address next, the collapse of commodity prices (in combination of with the government’s own power imperatives, which are beyond the scope of this chapter) have led to a scaling back of the more transformative aspects of the MAS program. The result is a still populist, if somewhat less popular, unitary nationalism whose socialist and plurinational elements are increasingly hollow. The resulting left populism has an Andean indigenous face (in the symbols of state as well as the head of government) but is neither socialist nor plurinationalist. Indeed, since the end of the commodity boom, the government has increasing drawn closer to multinational oil corporations and lowland agricultural barons, offering them incentive policies reminiscent of the neoliberal era.
Popular rejection of neoliberalism in Latin America
One major theoretical approach for explaining the rise of right-wing populisms in the global North has been a combination of economic anxiety and political exhaustion with a neoliberal policy consensus. But if we turn our geographical focus from North America and Europe to Latin America, the relationships among left and right, neoliberalism and technocratic neoliberalism, and nation and race all shift.
In the global North, right-wing populists weave a narrative that charges educated and urban elites with embracing globalization policies that sent industrial jobs overseas while allegedly welcoming Third World immigrants in. They put a nationalist spin on opposition to neoliberal globalization, and demand that government instead put “America [or Britain] first.” In Latin America, by contrast, it is leftist movements that most directly challenge globalization. They portray governmental elites who embrace neoliberalism as prioritizing the needs of foreign capital over their own citizens, serving as vendepatrías, people who sell out their own country. Where northern right-wing populists cultivate fear of a foreign racial other, these southern left-wing populists may embody or embrace indigenous and mixed racial statuses as they call for multicultural or plurinational society. These distinctions reflect that—unlike the neoliberalisms of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the populisms of a domestic privileged class— neoliberalism in Latin America has always been the externally approved reaction to local populism.
Neoliberal policies arrived in South America a decade prior to the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions. Augusto Pinochet's coordination with the “[University of] Chicago Boys” on his economic policies was test case of economic reform by police state. Bolivia’s 1985 shock therapy decree was imposed in response to a hyperinflation crisis under the left-leaning UDP party, which ruled from 1982 to 1985. In Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, Bolivia is the leading example of the abrupt imposition of neoliberalism under quasi-democratic conditions. A state of siege was declared in Bolivia, and prolonged detention of union and civil society leaders was used to break national strikes opposing Supreme Decree 21060. The end of hyperinflation in Bolivia and GDP growth in the Southern Cone justified a recipe of policy changes—the Washington Consensus—that would be promoted as essential to growth and imposed as a condition of international loans by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These institutions, along with the US Treasury Department and the Paris Club of private lenders, advised governments to compete for foreign investment, privatize state-run industries, avoid subsidizing commodities, and eliminate deficit spending, even if that meant cutting back public services (Williamson 1990). The goal was export-led growth and the means was increased foreign investment, which were facilitated by rapid leasing of natural resource concessions and construction of export infrastructure for raw materials (Hogenboom and Jilberto 2009).
By the end of the 1990s, however, numerous “star pupils” of this tutelage were caught up in crises of finance, political legitimacy or both. Argentina’s economy was devastated by capital flight during its 1999 to 2002 crisis. Overlapping debt, banking, and inflation crises in 1998 and 1999 led the Ecuadorian government to abandon its currency for the dollar in early 2000. Resulting civil unrest brought down governments in Ecuador (2000 and 2005), Argentina (2001), and Bolivia (2003 and 2005), and drove electoral shifts: eleven presidents in ten countries were voted in on the promise of rolling back neoliberalism between 2002 and 2010 (Coronil 2011:240–41).
By 2006, journalists and analysts were speaking of a “pink tide” of left-leaning electoral success across Latin America. But if “pink” was intended to imply a dilution of orthodox leftist red, then some rising political parties and the movements behind them went beyond that. In a 2011 analysis, Fernando Coronil pointed out two blocks: a more moderate stance in Brazil (led by Lula da Silva’s Worker’s Party), Argentina (headed by the Kirchners), and Chile (under Michelle Bachelet), and “the VEBo countries (typified by Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia) [who] more openly endorse socialism and promote policies associated with it” (251). Together with Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua, Cuba, and a half-dozen other Caribbean nations, these nations formed the Bolivarian Alliance for the the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a left-leaning trade and development bloc. Domestically, they made nationalization of resources and utilities, redistribution of wealth, and experiments with community-based economic alternatives the pillars of a “twenty-first century socialism.”
Meanwhile, even prominent proponents of the Washington Consensus began to theorize alternatives to it, among them future Peruvian president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (Kuczynski and Williamson 2003; Serra and Stiglitz 2008). For many mainstream economists, the Wall Street-driven financial crisis of 2008 and the persistent rise of East Asian economies that disregarded the Washington Consensus, demonstrated that more government intervention was necessary for growth. “Successful development,” wrote Robert Stiglitz, “requires not the minimal role assigned to the state by the Washington Consensus, but a balanced role. … In the most successful countries, government has taken on the broader set of roles associated with the developmental state” (Stiglitz 2008:54). Eventually, even the core institutions behind neoliberal structural adjustment came to question these policies for leaving the poor behind. In 2016, the IMF issued a strategic reassessment, finding that “instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion” (Ostry, Loungani, and Furceri 2016; Obstfeld 2016). This means that many pink tide initiatives, especially social democratic forms of redistribution, mesh with mainstream rethinking among capitalist development economists.
Left and Plurinational Promise
Evo Morales came to power in the wake of popular uprisings in 2003 and 2005, which capped a remarkable five-year period of social mobilization. The government inherited a dual mandate to nationalize and redistribute the country’s natural wealth (principally its gas resources) and to redefine the country so as to end the marginalization of its diverse indigenous majority. The twin ideologies of leftism and plurinationalism are expressed in the two-part title of Morales’ political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples. Each represented a radical transformation of decades, if not generations, of Bolivian governance, and the government presented itself as a bold effort to redefine the state.
The new governments in Bolivia and Ecuador both held constituent assemblies to rewrite their constitutions, implemented partial nationalizations that increased government ownership of hydrocarbon and mineral resources, and devolved new powers to their indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Along with these changes came renewed reliance on natural resource royalties to finance spending on anti-poverty programs, a combination known as neo-extractivism (Gudynas 2009). This strategy fulfilled longstanding leftist and anticolonial demands that Latin American countries should benefit from their natural resource wealth, even as it ran counter to some indigenous and environmental visions for a new relationship with the environment.
At the heart of this radical visioning process was the 2006–2007 Constituent Assembly, an extraordinary legislative body that wrote a bold governing document that redefined the Bolivian government as a plurinational state. Campesinos, teachers, miners, workers and indigenous people all took their place among the body’s 255 members. Half of them spoke an indigenous language; and one in five was a grassroots leader (Albo 2008:60). Many attendees saw the assembly as a place where bottom-up democracy could and should replace political parties, and where the unified and centralized Bolivian republic would be replaced by a new plurinational state that would guarantee indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples rights to self-government, “to control their own institutions,” and “to reconstitute their territories” (Proyecto Nina and Garcés, Anexo 9, 169).
The social movements represented in the Constituent Assembly demanded radical change along three fundamental axes: a leftist challenge to capitalism, a plurinationalist challenge to colonial hierarchies of culture and race, and an ethno-ecological critique of a distanced and destructive relationship with nature. While the third axis was peripheral to the largest Bolivian protest mobilizations, it was a core part of the radical ethical critique of the capitalist West. During its early years, the Morales government (like its Ecuadorian counterpart) was able to openly embrace the more radical versions of these visions, particularly in the lengthy constitutional text, presidential discourse, and international diplomacy.
A Fiscally Responsible Left Populism
A generation ago, neoliberal economists and policymakers defined themselves as rational opponents of populist economic policies. Populism, in the orthodox, neoliberal development literature, was “dangerous populism.” This perspective was taught as development policy at the University of Chicago, where I studied alongside upper-class Latin Americans in training to be the next generation of policymakers. In this narration,
political leaders offered populist economic policies—social spending, wage increases, commodity subsidies, or state-sponsored jobs—to attract votes. These policies were like candy, having an immediate appeal, but deviating from the necessities for long-term, healthy growth. Yet because they appealed to the public, they were incentivized by the democratic system. Hence democracy itself was seen as a paradox, a social good that tempted leaders (who should know better) to disregard the long-term best interests of their countries.
Some dangers associated with populist economic policies were quite real, and none of them were more dramatic than runaway inflation, something indelibly marked in the historical memory of Bolivia. In 1982, the Bolivian military relinquished power to Hernán Siles Zuazo, who headed the breakaway left faction of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement. (This the last decisive left turn in Bolivian politics before Evo Morales’ election in 2005.) Siles faced pent-up demands from labor and rural movements that had endured years of dictatorship and massacre, frontal opposition from private enterprise, and closed doors from international creditors. Sharp increases in the cost of debt service and bailouts for state-run enterprises were not matched by new taxes, opening a yawning deficit that reached 30% of GNP in 1984 (Morales and Sachs 1986:200). Attempts to close the fiscal gap through wage freezes, subsidy cuts, or public-sector layoffs only aroused mass labor opposition in the form of strikes and direct action. Siles refused to use deadly force to suppress protests, and instead used another state capacity, printing money to cover the state deficit.1 Hyperinflation was the result. The Bolivian peso’s value fell sharply in 1982 and 1983, and then cratered in 1984 and 1985, adding four extra zeroes to prices expressed in Bolivianos. Real incomes fell by 25% in the first half of the 1980s, and continued their slide as the country’s chief exports, tin and coca, lost their value. Despite mixed sources of responsibility, left governance has absorbed the historical blame for this economic catastrophe.2 And in the international development literature, early 1980s Bolivia became an exhibit of the dangers of left populism.
To counter these dangerous impulses, neoliberal policy theorists proposed a variety of mechanisms to insulate economic policies from democratic interference. Fiscal discipline, dismantling of state enterprises, and openness to foreign investment were made into “conditionalities” of loans to stabilize and restructure foreign debt. Policy planners advised that central banks should be made independent of national governments, led by unelected officers whose terms exceed the terms of heads of government. Regional blocs like the European Union unified currencies and subjected national budgets to coordinated limits. Increasingly broad trade agreements mandate certain policies and make deviations punishable by international tribunals. In essence, all of these neoliberal efforts push economic policy into technocratic domains, governed by experts, and out of democratic domains, subject to the popular will. In Bolivia, technocratic rule was accomplished through a consensus among major political parties, forged in 1985 and continued through 2003.3 For an entire generation, the major political parties united behind the same economic policies, no matter who won. Each president built a coalition to lead the country rightward, prioritizing foreign investment over labor rights and social spending.
When Evo Morales was elected president, international observers were shocked. The coca growers’ leader had long been a bogeyman for 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 2006.4
“We are not,” the Vice President pledged, “a populist government with easily opened pockets and cheap promises.”5 He highlighted the government’s “austerity” with its officials, who would no longer put money in offshore accounts, and its “responsible management of macroeconomics.” Speaking directly to the narrative of electorally driven populism, he observed that when facing elections,
The temptation to accede to every demand, to raise salaries 50%, 70%, 100%, to say “yes” and “yes” and “yes” to everyone using the state’s money, indebting ourselves, was very strong. In fact, other governments have done so. Not us.
Over the next decade, Bolivian government officials became experts at playing against type, contrasting their moderate polices with their radical reputation. They maintained small fiscal deficits, large currency reserves, and a high growth rate in GDP. Accordingly, the international capital markets have provided Bolivia with financing, while gradually upgrading its bond rating. As Carlos Ivan Lopez, head of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s debt brokerage sector, explained,
You have to separate the headlines from the fundamentals and in the case of Bolivia it was very easy to do because the numbers are there. … That's why the investors could see and dissociate Bolivia from some other countries in the region that also have very strong social agendas, but with less discipline on the fiscal side.6
So, the Morales/Garcia Linera government has been intent on offering the world a fiscally responsible left populism. The essential foundation of this plan is the partial nationalization of resource rents, principally natural gas exports, and high commodity prices: “The will of this government,” García Linera had told the CSIS in 2006, “is to produce, produce, and produce. Bring resources into the productive arena. Because only by generating wealth do you bring poverty to an end.” They wouldn’t print money. They would pump it out of the ground.
The defeat of the right and the establishment of the Plurinational State
The election of Evo Morales in 2005 capped five years of defiant protests with a dramatic political victory. Even the dramatic 53.8% to 28.6% margin of victory understates its significance. No political party had crossed the 40% mark in the quarter century since the last military dictator. The neoliberal parties found their fractions of the electorate suddenly inadequate to mount a serious challenge at the national level. From 2004 to 2009, right-wing forces regrouped to mount a serious challenge from the departmental governments of the east and center. This spirited effort, backed the urban and agribusiness elite, pursued a separatist challenge that counterposed the entrepreneurial agrarian lowlands to the supposedly backward and intransigent (and indigenous-dominated) Andean highlands. They rallied a “camba nation” centered on the four lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija (the “media luna”), where mid-century mestizo migration and European immigration had coalesced in an elite that saw itself as racially distinct from Bolivia’s highland indigenous (“colla”) plurality.
Media luna separatism drew on deeply rooted racism, past frictions between the regional elite, and national government, and class antagonisms between the self-identified cambas and the large numbers of colla workers and peasants who had arrived in the past quarter century. The region’s representatives formed an opposition front in the Consituent Assembly, built ties to urban mestizo politicians in Chuquisaca and Cochabamba, and held autonomy referendums that the Morales government termed illegal in May and June 2008. However, the tide then began to turn. The five right-leaning prefects demanded Evo Morales face a recall referendum, and he agreed on the condition that their mandates also appear on the ballot. Morales received a 67.41% vote of confidence, while Manfred Reyes Villa, the opposition prefect of Cochabamba, lost his seat. Doubling down, the right-wing mobilized to implement de facto “autonomy,” taking over national government buildings and looting the offices of left grassroots movements in four eastern departments. Rural organizations quickly organized marches on the eastern capitals, one of which was attacked with gunfire on September 11, 2008, killing 11 campesinos and educators in Pando department. This proved to be the turning point, after which all stars aligned against the separatists: the Union of South American Nations condemned their movement and foreclosed any possibility they could take over the lucrative export of gas to Brazil and Argentina. Meanwhile, the national government finally deployed its security forces to arrest Pando’s prefect Leopoldo Fernandez. Subjected to a trial by fire, separatism had failed.
Perhaps more importantly, the countermobilization against separatism brought the grassroots left back into the street. Evo Morales’ government redirected this mobilization from further confrontation around the eastern capitals to supporting his negotiations with the opposition in Cochabamba, and finally on a cross-country march from Caracollo, Oruro to La Paz. Thousands of marchers filled the capital’s Plaza Murillo and camped out there, surrounding the Bolivian National Congress on the night of October 20, 2008, to demand a referendum to approve the new constitution. Months of political deadlock finally ended the next day, and the January 2009 vote went decisively (61.4%) in favor of the constitution.
The plurinational state came into reality in 2010 with the seating of the first Plurinational Legislative Assembly. The MAS-IPSP had won 64% of the vote and two-thirds supermajority in the legislature. Morales proclaimed the day of his second inauguration—January 22, 2010—to be a holiday celebrating the Foundation of the Plurinational State. Symbolically, the plurinational state positioned itself as both the continuation of a centralized Bolivian republic and the embodiment of indigenous emergence. The immediate job of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly was to formalize the rules of the new government, its electoral and judicial mechanism, the meaning of autonomy, the protection for the environment, and the ownership of natural resources.
Shifting Priorities of the MAS-IPSP
The economic and political project of the MAS-IPSP government has a shifting set of components drawn from the social democratic and syndicalist left, visions of plurinationalism that center on either on social inclusion or radical decentralization/decolonization, and on either rethinking or deepening the country’s extractivist economic model. This diverse collection of ideas all found early expression the Morales government’s rhetoric, international diplomacy and self-image, and in the text of the 2009 Constitution. Over time, however, the centralizing tendencies of the state and economy have displaced and the more radical and transformative elements of this mix. Let’s now consider the continuing and the discarded elements of this left populism.
Morales and García Linera proposed a “twenty-first century socialism” and an “Andean-Amazonian socialism” that would recover control over natural resources, industrialize them domestically, redistribute the proceeds, and begin a transition to a more diverse, community-centered economy.
Leftism as redistribution: The core of left populist economic policies in the redistribution of wealth to the poorest sectors of society. In Bolivia, the primary means for this has been three cash-grant programs targeting demographic sectors of the public: The Dignity Pension (Renta Dignidad) offers a monthly payment to citizens over 60; The Juana de Azurduy Bonus provides cash payments to pregnant women and new mothers, conditional on receiving prenatal care, and the Juancito Pinto Bonus provide cash payments to families with small children attending school. These programs, combined with a rapidly rising minimum wage, reduce extreme poverty in Bolivia from 38.6% of the population to 16.8% over ten years.7
Leftism as nationalization and industrialization: In the first five years of Morales’ presidency, Bolivia re-nationalized its gas fields and infrastructure (under the state-owned YPFB), electrical grid (ENDE), telephone company (ENTEL), the Huanuni and Vinto tin mines (COMIBOL), major airports (SABSA), and the Vinto smelter (Empresa Metalúrgica de Vinto). It also created a new national airline, BoA; and a series of light manufacturing enterprises producing cardboard (CartoBol), packaged milk (LacteosBol), Cement (ECEBOL), paper (PapelBol), clothing (Enatex), and refined sugar and alcohol (San Buenaventura). Employment in state-owned enterprises skyrocketed from 673 to 16,366 in the ten years from 2005 to 2015, although the latter total is little more than half the number that the mining giant COMIBOL once employed (Página Siete, May 21, 2017).
Theoretically, the New Economic Model of Bolivia positioned the government as the redistributor of profits from the extractive sector to “Sectors that generate income and employment,” such as manufacturing and public services (see graphic from MEFP report, 2012). In reality, however, resource extraction generated more jobs than the manufacturing sector, and aside from the successful airline, the service sector consisted largely of legacy employment in declining utilities. The government also promised to redistribute surplus funds to the “communitarian economy,” that is the 18% of the population involved in rural production. However, a 2015 Fundación Tierra report found “an enormous breach between what is declared in [government] proposals and the reality that small-scale agriculturalists who realize an ever less import share of national economic production.”8 The numerous experiments in productive employment, urban and rural, have not achieved self-sustaining growth.
The 2014 crash in oil and gas prices, which marked the end of an extended commodity boom, the already shaky economic model faced a fundamental crisis. As commodity prices ebbed, the government sought to compensate for lower prices with increased volume. As older gas fields began to decline in production, they sought out corporations willing to invest in new fields. And with limited gas reserves, the government is seeking to generate a new source of revenue by exporting electricity. There was no longer enough of a surplus for experiments in a diverse economy. At the peak of the “plural” model, gas producer YPFB had received 86% of the state enterprise budget. Now, the extractive sector needed all the investment it could get, just when revenues were shrinking.
Accordingly, the government shifted towards more traditional policies for attracting investment, while discarding its socialist experiments. “The era of nationalization has already finished,” Development Planning Minister Rene Orellana told prospective investors in 2015. “Now we are looking for, and we are working on agreements and associations with private investors and private operators.” In an interview with Santa Cruz’s ultraconservative El Deber, Vice President García Linera declared, “The MAS is no longer the MAS of 2005, it has been changing its proposal, it is not as communitarian anymore, now it has embraced the Santa Cruz model, which is capitalist.” Santa Cruz elites had spearheaded the resistance to the Morales government in its early years, but now the socialist government now moved to work with Cruceño elites to expand large-scale export agriculture. In its ten-year development plan, the Patriotic Plan 2025, the government proposed quintupling the land under cultivation in the next decade, mostly by expanding mechanized monoculture. In the same interview, the vice president termed the light industrial enterprises a mistake, the result of overestimating “the associative maturity of the unions, and of the community of producers” (García Linera 2014). By 2015, the government announced that it would begin to shut down state enterprises that had yet to produce a profit, leading to struggles over layoffs at clothing maker Enatex and the Ecobol postal service.
The heart of the plan, however, is developing Bolivia’s energy resources under the aegis of the largest state enterprises, YPFB and ENDE. The government envisions a dramatic increase in hydrocarbon production: from 56 to 103 million cubic meters per day of gas and from 59 to 135 million barrels of oil per day.9 However, the gas sector has been hard hit by falling prices and state-owned gas producer YPFB has not found a major new field since the 1990s. Accordingly, the government has sought to make more of the country available for drilling and has begun to incentivize new private investment in the sector. New laws passed in 2015 and 2016 allocate government funds to subsidize private corporate investment in oil and gas, and to customize the legal environment to attract companies like Repsol, Total, Pluspetrol, and Petrobras. Meanwhile debt-financed public investment is planned to build thirty-five hydroelectric dams at a cost of US$27 billion, providing 9.9 to 11 GW of power by 2025.10 Among the largest is the El Bala/El Chepete complex, which is set to flood parts of the Amazon basin in northern La Paz, including the Madidi National Park. This energy is not needed within Bolivia, whose peak electricity consumption is well under 2 GW. Instead, the government hopes to make electricity into a major export commodity, sent overland to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru.
Not only have these initiatives crowded out government support for socialist experiments, they have begun to reverse the much-vaunted leftward shifts of the early Morales years. Under concessionary contracts, the always-partial nationalization of the gas sector is undermined by effective partial ownership of new fields by YPFB’s foreign corporate partners. And in the agricultural sector, a hard-fought 5,000-hectare constitutional cap on the size of estates has been bypassed by landholding families. The proposed expansion of the agrarian frontier will accelerate that trend, indefinitely postponing the promised “end of the era of the latifundio.” Finally, investment in pharaonic public infrastructure projects, of which the dams are only the most visible element, have already reversed the trend towards declining public debt the government had promoted as a symbol of economic autonomy.
Similarly, only some of initial meanings of plurinationalism have become defining features of the Morales government, while others have been discarded. The incorporation of indigenous individuals into state and citizenship has proved more durable than the corresponding transformation of governance towards indigenous perspectives and norms. Along the way, those indigenous social movements that held firm to a more expansive vision of autonomy have become the targets of its direct ire.
Plurinationalism as mass enfranchisment — From the beginning, the government worked to make indigenous people legible as citizens and eligible as voters. At Morales’ inauguration, he lamented the prevalence of illiteracy and the existence of Bolivians without identity documents (unlike Europe “where even the dogs have passports”). Mass literacy campaigns, structured by Venezuelan and Cuban aid workers, and a newly cost-free identity registration program made hundreds of thousands of Bolivians into literate voters. The electoral rolls exploded from 3.6 million in 2005 to 6.5 million in 2016.11 There is no doubt that indigenous and poor Bolivians had been underrepresented Bolivians had been underrepresented in the pre-2006 electorate, and these initiatives built up a powerful electoral defense for the MAS-IPSP in future electoral contests.
Enfranchisement also describes the new relationship between indigenous Bolivians and government offices. Many indigenous Bolivians had previously felt unwelcome to conduct official business before national and regional agencies, particularly if they appeared in traditional indigenous dress or spoke their native language. The MAS-IPSP mandated that government officials each learn an indigenous language and make services available to all. In ten years, public administration grew from 23,158 to 54,224 workers, and the face of this growth was often indigenous. At higher levels of the civil service, initiatives like the Diplomatic Academy diversified government service in gradual, but effective way.
Plurinationalism as radical decentralization — Plurinationalism was supposed to be about redefining governance in a way that centered indigenous autonomy. A longstanding effort to title indigenous territories continued under the Morales government. By 2009, 20.7 million hectares or 19% of Bolivia’s land area had been included in “Native Community Lands” (TCOs) soon to be renamed “Indigenous/Native/Peasant Territories” (TIOCs). This figure would inch up to 23.9 million hectares by 2016. 12 Indigenous representatives at the Constituent Assembly proposed these territorial units as the basis for a decentralized government in which executive and judicial functions would be retaken by the pre-existing nations of Bolivia.
But once the constitution was in place, the MAS-IPSP proved unenthusiastic about decentralizing power away from the national government it now controlled. The new laws reflected this: in the 2010 Framework Law on Autonomies, devolved powers were limited and a central authority oversaw them. In 2011, the government undertook a major effort to build a road through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) despite the objections of the territory’s indigenous organizations. The 2012 Mother Earth Law made the planet and its ecosystems into “a collective subject of public interest” with quasi-legal rights, but reserved to the executive all rights to sue on her behalf. During the 2010–2015 term, seven indigenous deputies (chosen independently of the MAS-IPSP) critiqued all of these moves. In the 2014 elections, however, the government brought indigenous representation into the party system and imposed harder discipline on its legislators, declaring there was no room for “free thinkers” in the party. The two indigenous organizations that spearheaded protests over the TIPNIS highway, CIDOB and CONAMAQ, were torn apart by pro-government representatives who formed parallel leaderships for the organizations, while the government refused to provide services or even meetings for its critics within these organizations.
The current extractive push has further limited indigenous self governance. The constitution provides for “free, prior, and informed” consultation over “the exploitation of natural resources,” to be conducted through indigenous norms and procedures within indigenous territories. In 2015, Morales moved to “streamline” this process, explaining, “It’s not possible for so much time to be lost in the so-called consultations, that is the great weakness of our state … we will modify some of the rules with the sole objective of accelerating investment and obtaining more natural resources.”13 Among these modifications is the declaration of national strategic need to drill for oil and gas in protected national parks and biosphere reserves, limiting the consultation period to 45 days and capping the amount of compensation to indigenous communities harmed by extraction activities.
Bolivia’s New Left Populism: Extractivist, Centralizing, and Nationalist
Plurinational Bolivia has made a major turn from the country I came to know from 2008 to 2011. Bolivia under Evo Morales had distinguished itself as one of the most enthusiastic proponents of indigenous and environmental rights. Foreign Minister Choquehuanca led that effort, pledging: “We have begun the process of recovering our identity, our dignity, our codes and symbols. We have begun to recover our own forms of organization and administration of natural resources.” It blocked consensus at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, demanding deeper emissions cuts, and then hosted over twenty thousand activists in Cochabamba to back up its demands. There, President Morales delivered an extended speech condemning how “capitalism kidnaps Mother Earth to loot her resources, to exploit her sons and daughters, to poison her rivers and lakes.” Despite this engagement with environmental radicals, however, the government has always been a vocal proponent getting oil and gas out of the ground, so long as natural resource wealth is redirected by the nation-state to fund an ambitious social agenda. The Morales government combined ethno-ecological rhetoric taken from the transnational indigenous movement with leftist policies of nationalization and redistribution. In this early period, there was room for every vision, for social democratic and socialist economic policies, for enfranchising and decentralizing plurinationalism.
Beginning in 2011, however, the government moved from an aspiration constitution to drafting and executing its laws. It began to face growing pressure from left, indigenous and environmentalist protest mobilizations. And in 2014, the commodity boom collapsed. Choices had to be made.
Since then, the government has not wavered from its commitment to the macroeconomic fundamentals, and has doubled down on extractivism as the basis for perpetuating its redistributionist economic agenda. The pillars of this approach—a small number of public enterprises and social welfare programs—are centralized around the nation state, but they are branded as plurinational initiatives. A quick survey of how this is done symbolically is vital to understand how the practical centrality of the state is reconciled with the plural impulses of the movements that brought it to power.
Consider the Juana Azurduy maternal bonus program, which provides cash assistance and medical services to expectant mothers. The mestiza patriot Azurduy is honored as a speaker of Quechua and Aymara, a bearer of four sons who fought for independence, and a soldier in her own right. By naming the bonus after her, the government identifies giving birth as a form of national loyalty. And by honoring indigenous and poor women, it inverts the stigma around their fecundity into a service to the nation. Rather than welfare, it is framed as a well-deserved right that symbolically and materially includes them in the country’s prosperity.
Similarly, the Tupac Katari telecommunications satellite is an example of pluri-branded national progress. Indigenous rebel Túpac Katari laid siege to La Paz in the ultimately unsuccessful indigenous rebellion of 1781 and 1782. Prophetically, his last words pledged, “I die, but I will return as millions.” In December 2013, a Chinese rocket launched the Túpac Katari 1 into orbit over Bolivia. A government propaganda mural promoting the satellite pictures Katari alongside Evo Morales, while declaring, “The future is ours. The past is present.” The satellite serves a bridge between Bolivia’s indigenous rebel past and its technological future, a talisman of the kind of Sputnik leftism that figures technological progress as a socialist achievement.
Indeed, much of the state sector of the economy—particularly the gas company YPFB, Entel telecommunications, and BoA airline—serves as part of the image-making apparatus of the state, promoting a combined image of inclusive progress, modernity, and economic accessibility. Advertising spots from YPFB narrate the protests for nationalization and interplay images of Bolivian tricolors and industrial equipment. The affordability of domestic BoA flights dovetail with government investment in opening dozens of airports to connect far-flung corners of Bolivia to modern transportation. Entel’s by-the-second cell phone pricing policies are uniquely geared to the needs of poor urbanites, a MAS-IPSP constituency overlooked by its private competitors. Meanwhile, its advertising depicts rural Bolivians speaking Aymara as they discuss watching the Copa America football tournament via Katari satellite in their dusty Altiplano home. Through its state-owned corporations, the MAS-IPSP has re-nationalized political struggle in a way that may not radically redefine the economy, but does offer material and symbolic rewards to a broad sector of the public.
Conclusion: Winning by Retreating?
For now, the Bolivian government has found a winning combination of new and old elements, of indigenous participation but limited territorial rights, of social democratic redistribution and macroeconomic stability, of nationalized resource revenues and large-scale capitalism. With each passing year, it becomes more difficult to call this combination either socialism or plurinationalism. It is, however, populist and nationalist. It offers leftists material advancement and offers indigenous peoples dignity. It binds these material changes to a symbolic realm where modernity, freedom from foreign domination, and indigenous glory all play a role.
The Bolivian right has been unable to regroup from either of its recent defeats, at the ballot in 2005 or in the streets in 2008. The roster of right-of-center presidential candidates for the past decade is relatively static: businessman Samuel Doria Medina, and ex-president Jorge Quiroga have run repeatedly, and a one-time regional alliance was led by two deposed prefect Manfred Reyes Villa and Leopoldo Fernández (the latter still awaiting trial in jail). Meanwhile, the independent left parties—the Without Fear Movement (MSM) led by Juan del Granado, and the Green Party, which put TIPNIS indigenous leader Fernando Vargas atop its 2014 ticket—have failed to attract a significant vote share at the national level. These two forces, which made similar criticisms of the MAS, failed to unify in 2014, dooming both to disqualification as they narrowly missed the 3% threshold to retain eligibility for national elections. However, the nucleus of the Without Fear Movement reconstituted itself as Sovereignty and Freedom (SOL.bo), allied with indigenous dissident Felix Patzi, and defeated the MAS in La Paz governor and mayor’s races.
There are cracks in the MAS-IPSP’s incredible electoral dominance, but the party continues to hold a remarkable share of elected offices. It barely slipped in terms of municipalities under its control, from 231 to 225 in the 2015 election. But its influence in the capital cities, regional governments, and national votes is declining. Opposition parties govern three departments and major parts of the left grassroots defected from the MAS in two more: the peasant federation in Chuquisaca and lowland indigenous movement in Beni. To make the leap from local opponents to national challengers, however, requires a single candidate to get with 10% striking distance of Evo Morales, an extreme challenge given the enduring hostility between left and right political forces.
The alignment between a massive indigenous electoral block and the MAS-IPSP government is highly dependent on the personal role of Evo Morales, who has been able to “embody the people” through his biography and presentation. A 2015 Financial Times profile of the country quoted a “senior MAS member” as saying that the president “is the only element of cohesion of indigenous, peasant and social movements, and there is a strong belief that he is the only one who could manage this country.” The profile continued,
Not a few capitalists believe that too. “We should be thankful we have Evo. Marginalisation was a time-bomb and he has forced us to share the pie,” says a businessman who did not want to be named.
In the eyes of many capitalists, Morales has clearly moved from a threat to stability to its guarantor.
The governing party’s confidence in Evo Morales, and the lack of a highly visible figure who could substitute for him at the top of the ballot, have led to three consecutive nominations for him as president. Rather than groom a successor, the party and its closest movement allies are now seeking to put him forward for a fourth term, which is barred by the 2009 Constitution. A February 2016 referendum allowing his repostulation failed narrowly, with 51.3% opposed. Undeterred, the MAS-IPSP challenged the constitutional term limits before the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, which struck them down in December 2017 as a violation of the president’s civil and political rights. The question of Morales’ fourth term has brought together dissident indigenous and civic movements, numerous left dissidents who have become critical of the government’s direction, and political parties on the left and right. However, there is no sign of a shared ballot line or program that would unite these forces during national elections. Extractive left populism remains a powerful force.
The choice to print money domestically rather than borrow it abroad—usually treated as a foolish decision—was forced upon the Siles government, as Juan Antonio Morales and Jeffrey Sachs (1986:187) acknowledged, “a key condition for the eventual outbreak of hyperinflation was the cutoff in access to foreign borrowing in 1982: only a credit-constrained government would choose to finance current expenditures with a hyperinflation rather than with more foreign borrowing.”↩
The more detailed accounting by Morales and Sachs shows that service on the debt (accumulated during the dictatorship), rather than new spending was the primary cause of the deficit. Likewise, the public payroll had increased 92% during the Banzer years. The left mobilized to defend public sector employees (in both the government and the state-run companies) from layoffs and wage cuts, but its demands were essentially defensive and not about creating new services or entitlements.↩
Vice President Carlos Mesa and President of the Supreme Court Eduardo Rodríguez came to be presidents from October 2003 to January 2006 without representing any political parties.↩
This and following quotes from my transcription of Álvaro García Linera’s speech at Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 21, 2006. https://www.csis.org/events/%C3%A1lvaro-garc%C3%ADa-linera-vice-president-bolivia↩
Speech at “Investing in the New Bolivia” 2015.↩
2005 vs. 2015 figures in Evo Morales, Informe de Gestión 2016, January 22, 2017, p. 100.↩
Importancia Socioeconómica de la Agricultura Familiar en Bolivia, p. 73. My translation.↩
“ENDE: Bolivia Generará 11.000 MW de Energía Por Medio de Hidroeléctricas Hasta 2025,” La Razón, October 20, 2016, http://www.la-razon.com/economia/ENDE-Bolivia-generara-MW-hidroelectricas_0_2585741478.html.↩
The growth prompted an opposition polemic against “fraudulent” registration in 2009, leading the Congress to mandate a biometric electoral database. In a two-and-a-half-month marathon campaign, the government re-registered 5,138,583 voters, 27% more than in the January 2009 election. http://www.eods.eu/library/FR%20BOLIVIA%202009_es.pdf↩
2016 figure from http://www.paginasiete.bo/sociedad/2017/1/3/volver-campo-historias-lucha-reconquista-tierra-122414.html↩
“Evo dice en consulta previa se pierde mucho tiempo,” Erbol Digital, July 12, 2015, http://www.erbol.com.bo/noticia/indigenas/12072015/evo_dice_en_consulta_previa_se_pierde_mucho_tiempo.↩