(Re)imagining the future in Bolivia
TIPNIS in focus ⬿

(Re)imagining the future in Bolivia

Poster for the ‘Encounter in the Times of Fragmentation’, Cochabamba, Bolivia (taken from Facebook.
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, openDemocracy 
November 21, 2017

On June 8, in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s ‘city of eternal spring’, national and Latin American activists and intellectuals met to discuss a left-wing, anarchist, and environmentalist indigenous critique of president Evo Morales’ left-of-centre popular-indigenous government.

At the Encounter in Times of Fragmentation, Bolivian activists talked of being betrayed. The popular rebellion against neoliberal economic inequality and post-colonial racial discrimination, which brought the Morales-headed MAS[i] coalition to power, had been co-opted and fragmented in the name of governability and economic growth. The hope of autonomy and community self-determination had remained largely unfulfilled. Activists, the majority of whom were indigenous women, discussed how to regain their political autonomy and powers of self-determination, and thereby recover the possibility of the future they had imagined.

Social movements, even as there is an ongoing scholarly debate about their exact definition and their chances of ‘success’[ii], are about imagination and hope. Protest participants need to be able imagine a better future, and hope that they can achieve it. They are about ‘making the future possible again’.

Movement activists and organizations do not just need to convince potential participants that there is a problem, but that it is a legitimate issue to rally around, that it manifests a failure of the current political (and economic) system, and that, crucially, the alternative ‘way of doing things’ addressing the issue is desirable.[iii] This is drawing on the framing perspective: social movements need to be able to frame issues in a way that portrays them as legitimate and ideally succeeds in uniting often disparate demands in one struggle, under one master frame.

Protest in Bolivia

This is crucial for understanding the current fragmentation of civil society and popular organizations in Bolivia, following the now-famous, but then-unexpected 2005 victory of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, on a wave of a popular and indigenous rebellion against neoliberal privatisations and for popular (Bolivian and indigenous) sovereignty.[iv]

Having ‘re-founded’ Bolivia as a pluri-national state with a new plebiscite-approved constitution in 2009, the MAS administration came under increasing criticism; some commentators[v], echoing the  complaints of critical Bolivian activists, have even insisted that apart from discourse, little has changed and that Bolivia remains neoliberal under a progressive guise. On the one hand, this is patently not true, as industries have been nationalized, inequality reduced, and the role and reach of the state significantly increased.

On the other, it is also clear that many of the expectations of the early 2000s have not been met. Is Bolivia’s a story of hopes raised too high? If the 2009 constitution had not been so radical, perhaps the reforms in Bolivia would be seen today in a more positive light. It is important to bear this in mind when we discuss the ‘successes’ of social movements. Against what standard are we judging success? Against the most radical visions of social movements that are now side-lined, as more moderate demands have already been met?[vi] Is popular and indigenous opposition to a popular indigenous government a sign of betrayal and disappointment, or is it more complicated?

What the victories of social movements in Bolivia in the 2000s have shown was that another future is indeed possible. It is true that the ‘horizon of possibilities’ has narrowed under Evo Morales. To deliver its promises, many of which it in fact has, the MAS administration had to focus much of its energy on governability. This move from ‘protest to proposal’ (de la protesta a la propuesta) has been applauded by some of the social movement organisations that helped bring this government to power, as necessary for learning how to get things done. Yet other activists and popular organisations have been sidelined during this bureaucratization, and their aspirations hampered.

In this context, can social movements organizations and activists both within and outside of the governing party continue to put pressure on the government? Will we witness new popular protests and mass mobilisations in Bolivia, a country now famous internationally for the strength of its social movements and their ability to bring the country to a standstill and depose president after president in the early 2000s?

At first glance, this seems unlikely now given the incorporation of social movement organizations and activists into the governing party, and the divisions among those left out. Yet across all social movement organizations, regardless of their level of support for the government, women, especially indigenous women, are becoming increasingly vocal and organized. What are their chances of reinvigorating popular mobilisation in Bolivia?

Indigenous politics and the extractive economy

Although MAS’ 2006 electoral victory and the constitutional reform it pushed through continue to be considered crucial victories by nearly all Bolivian social movements, the current administration faces increasing opposition. The biggest source of disappointment for domestic and international activists alike is the continued reliance of Bolivia’s economy on the extraction of primary resources.

The government funds its redistributive programme through fossil fuel extraction, despite the now constitutionally codified rights of ‘Mother Earth’. The lines of debate about the difficulties of reconciling poverty reduction and economic growth with protection of the environment and local autonomy have already been well defined. The continued popularity of Evo Morales attests to the successes his left-wing administration has had with fighting persistent inequality and racism in this South American country.

As Emily Achtenberg so aptly points out, “while the new MAS worldview may be seen as a betrayal of radical indigenous and socialist ideals, it also reflects a pragmatic response to Bolivia’s changing economic, social, and political realities”.

However, the government has increasingly ignored, and at times repressed, local, often indigenous, resistance to continued exploitation of natural resources. In fact, struggles against extraction have been picking up across the region, not only in intensity but also its impact. This includes the unprecedented blanket ban on all metal mining in El Salvador this year, or the fact that despite earlier conflict about the benefits and dangers of gold mining, 98% of residents voting against the Colosa mine in Cajamarca, Colombia in a local referendum this March. Encouraged by those and by Native American protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, opposition to proposed new mega dams is growing in Bolivia, building on both local organising capacity and global activist networks.

This renewed indigenous and environmental resistance began to grow again in 2011 – after the period of relative calm following Evo Morales’ victory and the passing of the new constitution – when the government proposed to build a major highway through a protected indigenous territory, the now well-known TIPNIS (for more details of the conflict see Mukhopadhyay’s article here). The project was met with fierce resistance and mobilisations of many of the indigenous communities affected, and their environmentalist allies. At the same time, some indigenous and peasant communities and pro-government organizations remained in vocal support of the project.

This division within the social movements that had brought Morales to office through a ‘Pact of Unity’ agreed on in the late 1990s is the source of the current fragmentation. It highlights the contradictory notions of what indigeneity means. It illustrates how the unity of cultural and material focused indigenous organising – the combining of recognition and redistribution, of group rights and equal rights[vii] – has now largely been eclipsed in Bolivia. Moreover, it shows that we need to insist on differentiating political indigenous identities, which are now taken up both in support and in opposition to the MAS government.

A process of change and a time of fragmentation

Indeed, one of the participants of the Encounter in Times of Fragmentation in Cochabamba, Guatemalan indigenous sociologist and activist Gladys Tzul, highlights the problem of seeing indigenous communities

“as utopian, perfect and balanced. Of course, that’s not the case… those views prevent seeing the complexity of local power”.

Fighting this tendency to romanticise indigenous communities allows us to explore local power dynamics, rather than presenting indigenous communities as homogenous and static. It is in doing so that we can understand how different indigenous communities come to different decisions regarding their relationship with the state and its economy, especially the potential benefits and threats of extractive industry.[viii] As such we recognize the agency of indigenous leaders and activists, and can understand how different indigenous identities can be taken up politically for different and sometimes conflicting purposes.

Work in progress

This can also help us when taking another look at the Morales administration to see it in its complexity. Rather than moving rather naively from unrestrained hope to complete disappointment, as social movement scholars and activist we should be able to evaluate both the advances and shortcomings of the MAS ‘revolution’.

In doing so, we can also move beyond this now-stale debate and look to how the process of transformation, or ‘work in progress’ (Kohl, 2010), in Bolivia can be reinvigorated again. As I will argue below, the role of female activists will be crucial, and the Encounter hints at this; the activists attending, especially the key speakers, are predominantly women, many of them indigenous women.

It is only fitting that the critical opposition to the Morales administration meets in Cochabamba, the stage of the 2000 ‘Water War’, the popular rebellion against water privatizations in the city and the beginning of the wave of protests that ultimately brought the same government to power. On the one hand, this forum shows how the radical expectations of social movements in Bolivia remain unfulfilled. Raquel Gutiérrez, a Mexican activist and intellectual, former Bolivian guerrilla fighter and the ex-wife of Morales’ vice-president, Garcia Linera, argues that there is indeed “a distinct discourse, but … not a renewed way of doing politics”.

On the other, it brings to fore the question of how to move forward, and strengthen and deepen revolutionary politics in the country.

Mother Earth and women’s protagonism

 “The fresh water that runs through the veins of Mother Earth unites us as women, gives us life and only in its defense will it be possible to exercise our rights.”

So proclaims RENAMAT, the National Network of Women in Defense of Mother Earth, and one of the participating organisations of the Cochabamba summit. The event is also attended by the opposition CONAMAQ (National Council of Markas and Ayllus of Quollasuyo, a highland indigenous, largely Aymara, organisation) and CIDOB (Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, a lowland indigenous confederation), two of the five founding organisations of the Unity Pact. There were also representatives of the TIPNIS leadership and other indigenous organisations, as well as Bolivian and international activists.

Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, the renowned Aymara intellectual, sociologist and activist and co-founder of CONAMAQ, was a key presenter. Having served as an advisor to the Morales administration, she has now been marginalized by the government along with other leftist and anarchist activists and intellectuals, who are increasingly critical of the government. She tells us to:

“Think about rebellion as an ember that, once the fire has gone out, needs to be carefully covered and looked after; as women we have an important role in this ethics of care, together with indigenous women who maintain the reproduction of life in their communities”.

At the same time, she argues forcefully that “no indigenous movement up to now has fully acknowledged the difference that women make”, and this applies also to the organizations attending the Encounter.

Silvia Rivera rightly argues that Bolivia’s ‘process of change’ needs to continue deepening itself, as a constant struggle for a better future. For that purpose, activists do have to identify injustices in order to legitimate their demands, and thus broaden the horizon of possibilities again.

As social movement scholars, we should examine the role of imagination and hope in fuelling a continuous struggle of everyday politics. This everyday politics[ix] is what keeps the ‘ember’ of rebellion hot in times when the horizon of possibilities narrows, ready to start a new fire to expand it again.

Protest is also about unfulfilled expectations, and female activists that played a pivotal role in the popular rebellions that propelled the current government to power feel increasingly marginalised. Many of them can still remember these struggles vividly, and they are passing the knowledge and strategies of rebellion to younger generations. They may choose to remain loyal to the government – and pressure it from within to listen to them more as they work on building up their organizational and leadership capabilities, such as the women’s indigenous peasant union Bartolina Sisa. Or they might build organizations and collectives that critique the government from a leftist, anarchist and indigenous communitarian perspective – leading by example in building local autonomy – such as Silvia Rivera’s Collectivo Ch’ixi.

Overcoming fragmentation?

Yet the question remains whether they will be able to transcend the current fragmentation. To do so, they will need to reach out to urban indigenous and working-class women and especially the younger generations that have little experience of popular rebellions, but are increasingly engaged in feminist and women’s rights struggles.

Building links through the Latin America-wide Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement against violence against women seems a fruitful route. On July 7, a month after the Encounter, diverse organisations marched through Cochabamba in defense of women’s rights and against gender violence, only to face police repression and arrests. Yet the activist reached out beyond the issue of violence against women, marching for “life, territory and dignity”, echoing the 1990 historic march of Bolivian indigenous communities in defense of ancestral territories (spearheaded by CIDOB).

In another part of the country, community leaders and representatives of the Organization of the Women of TIPNIS are leading renewed mobilisations rejecting proposals to repeal Law 180, which declared the TIPNIS territory ‘untouchable’ in 2011 following the protests in its defense. At the beginning of July, pro-government indigenous and social movements proposed again to repeal the law so that the highway construction could be resumed.

The examples above show how women are taking a lead role in social movements in Bolivia, especially in opposition to the government. Yet their actions remain low-scale and rather isolated. Many of the female rebels that helped bring the government to power remain loyal to it, and younger women with little experience of activism might be reluctant to join more radical movements. Yet there are signs that the now-fragmented opposition is building new links of solidarity and attempting to frame opposition to the Morales administration as an issue of women’s, indigenous rights, and environmental rights. The master frame of Mother Nature, uniting concerns for life, territory, and dignity, may be able to do so.

Voice: moving forward

Despite their political differences, the indigenous leaders and female activists in Bolivia agree on one thing: they demand voice, and that their right to have a say in matters that affect their communities be respected. As such, conflicts over extraction should not be viewed as a dichotomy between indigenous communities being co-opted and corrupted on the one hand and succeeding in protecting their culture and the environment on the other. It is about local communities having a say about what happens in their territories, and crucially, having the capacity to hold the state and private companies to account.

This goes back to the question posed at the beginning – how desirable is the future proposed by social movements, and for whom? How do you convince those who continue to vote for the Morales administration thanks to the social programs, infrastructural developments and anti-racism legislation, among other developments and reforms, to find a future without extraction desirable, when this is presented as the only way to fund these reforms? Moreover, how do you convince those from previously marginalised sectors, who have fought hard to gain access to decision making and to the benefits of extraction through this ‘wave of incorporation’ into the state under Morales, to fight again for a much deeper transformation of the political and economic system in Bolivia? If this can be done, it seems it will be Bolivian women that will have to take a leadership role this time round.


[i] The full name of the party is MAS-IPSP, Movement towards Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People. The concept of ‘instrument’ was included by the social movement organization when they founded MAS in 1994 in order to differentiate it from traditional political parties.

[ii] See, for example, (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 2001) and (Amenta et al., 2010).

[iii] This is drawing both on the framing perspective (Benford & Snow) and Donatella della Porta’s recent call to refocus our attention to grievances again.

[iv] For some of the best analyses of the changes in Bolivia, see Crabtree & Chaplin (2013) and Postero (2007).

[v] These included, for example, Artaraz (2012) or Webber (2007).

[vi] This idea of a ‘protest cycle’, with moderate demands being met and thus more radical demands being marginalized as popular support for them ebbs, is well established in the social movements literature (Tarrow, 2011).

[vii] The analytically usefulness of the recognition versus redistribution dichotomy emerges from the authors master’s thesis about the meaning of multiculturalism and pluri-nationalism in Bolivia, and is further developed in the doctoral research that informs this article.

[viii] See Bebbington and colleagues’ comprehensive work on how different local communities across Latin America approach extractive projects (Bebbington, 2012).

[ix] Or a non-movement in the words of Bayat (Bayat, 2013).

This article was originally published on openDemocracy. It has been republished on IC under a Creative Commons License.

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