The government of social movements
The end of military rule at the beginning of the 80s brought a period of increased tension between new social movements and the democratic State. In the ‘lost decade’ scenario of austerity and structural reforms, and in the face of rising levels of poverty and inequality, new social movements emerged in resistance to neoliberal policies. By the beginning of the 90s, it became evident that the double transition to democratic rule and a neoliberal model failed to deliver its promises of social and political inclusion, development and well-being to large sections of the population. The deficient functioning of political parties (Van Cott 2000, Mayorga 2004) rendered them unable to represent the growing discontent among popular sectors, pushing the articulation of social movements forward. The discontent derived into a double crisis of legitimacy of the political system and the neoliberal model marked by an intense period of social protest and mobilization between 2000 and 2005, with the Water War (2000) and the Gas War (2003) as the high points. Despite growing citizen disapproval, the governments of former dictator Hugo Banzer Suarez and technocrat Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada continued the implementation of a neoliberal agenda, including the privatization of natural resources enterprises. In this scenario, the people turned to the streets and social mobilization, leading to fatal clashes with the State and the reversal of governmental policies. The at-the-time president Sanchez de Lozada was even forced to resign and flee the country amidst the Gas War, and it would take little over a year before social protest would once again oust Carlos Mesa, his former vice-president, from the presidential seat.
The implications of the social outbursts were significant and manifold. First, it proved the efficiency of social movements as political actors and vehicles of citizen participation and representation. Second, it showed that it was possible to impose street politics, or ‘contentious power’, on the formal and institutionalized. Third, as a moment of
Protest State and street politics 37 deep political crisis, it made clear that profound reforms were necessary and imminent. And last, in the context of a legitimacy crisis of the political party system and the triumphant mood, social movements emerged as the legitimate actors to conduct the change. In a somewhat contradictory turn, the social movements opted to further unite electorally behind the charismatic leadership of Evo Morales and the MAS to participate in the December 2005 national elections. They defined the slogans of the political campaign, and after Morales was installed as president in January 2006, played an active role in the implementation of the political agenda they had set.
The 2005 electoral victory of Morales and MAS, with over 50% votes, constituted a turning point for the social movements. From then on, under the MAS government, social movements entered into a complex and fluctuating position by attempting to synergize institutional politics with ‘contentious power’, quite literally a ‘government of social movements’. As if this was not challenging enough, the objective was nothing short of a revolution, the ‘re-foundation’ of the Bolivian State to achieve radical social transformations, an objective that could count on the resistance from the politically displaced but still powerful economic elite.
The first years of the Morales government were marked by the confrontations around the Constituent Process. An original demand of the indigenous movement was that a new constitution was to be drafted by a Constituent Assembly. At first, the oppositional forces almost successfully sabotaged the assembly around procedural technicalities at the institutional level. The indigenous social movement organizations, coordinated under the umbrella entity Pacto de Uni-dad (Pact of Unity), organized vigils and social protests in response that were, in turn, met by mobilizations by the urban elite of the city of Sucre, where the Constituent Assembly was seated. While maintaining a firm foot on the streets, the indigenous movement drafted a complete proposal for the new Constitution pushing the process within the Assembly forward.1 At that point, the resistance by the economic and displaced elites concentrated in the eastern region, where politicians sought to reinforce power at the local and regional political levels, mobilizing large segments of the urban population around the claim for regional autonomy, particularly in the region and city of Santa Cruz. The strong divide and confrontation even bordered on civil war, but the dual action of the social movements linked to MAS, both at the institutional space of the Assembly and the streets, defended the process and enabled its completion. The popular and indigenous pressure from the streets rescued the Assembly from complete stagnation, while the ‘civic autonomous’ movement was strong enough to force a few but very important concessions.2 As I have argued before (Valdivia 2019), the discussions, confrontations and negotiations that took place in the realm of social movements were essential to the troubled constituent process and to shaping its result, demonstrating again the weight of non-institutional politics over the formal spaces of the State.
The promulgation of the 2009 Constitution was, to an extent, perceived as the defeat of the political opposition by the ‘government of social movements’. The 2009 Constitution was approved by a referendum with 61% votes, and the elections held later that year yielded a 64% win for the party of Morales. The hegemonic position of the MAS appeased the conflicts with the political opposition that, from that moment, entered a period of fragmentation and loss of legitimacy, unable to articulate a plausible political discourse and project. At the same time, sustained economic growth and stability became markers of the Morales administration. The nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector in 2006 and the rising prices in the world market meant a considerable increase of the treasury while large parts started being redirected towards social policy. Until the end of the Morales administration, GDP averaged around 5% per year, GDP per capita doubled and poverty and inequality fell by half (Knaack 2020). The Bolivian ‘economic wonder’ was a source of legitimacy reinforcing MAS’s hegemonic power. This is the stage of ‘economic prosperity’ that Moseley sees as the precondition for the rising levels of social protest that characterize the ‘protest State’.
The two-thirds MAS majority in the legislative was crucial in shaping the relation of the State-social movements in the following years. Pro-indigenous policies and wealth redistribution amounted to unprecedented high levels of representation of many of the common and historical grievances, creating the space for contradictions and differences within MAS’ plural coalition to surface. Social movement organizations moved back to sectorial demands amidst rising expectations generated by MAS hegemonic position and economic bonanza, leading to fragmentation and confrontation. The Gasolinazo conflict in 2010 and the TIPNIS-conflict in 2012 are most illustrative, where the MAS’ absolute majority government was kept in check against these particular issues by quite ‘autonomous’ indigenous social protest (see also Valdivia 2019). However, when the political opposition and elite interests needed to be confronted, the popular support would again align sufficiently behind Morales, as illustrated by the electoral moments. Even the considerably destabilizing and delegitimizing
TIPNIS-conflict of 2012 did not prevent Morales from winning the 2014 national election, again with over 60% votes.
As I will explain below, the absolute MAS majority in the legislative practically neutralized the opposition at the institutional level, pushing it towards the domain of non-institutionalized politics where it adopted a strategy of destabilization and discrediting of the MAS government. This struggle took place to a large extent in the arena of the (social) media and the NGO-sector, explaining the hostilities under the Morales administration, but also through social protest. To confront this, most notably in the context of weak institutions, the MAS government turned to the social movements as a source of legitimacy and ‘contentious power’. In a personal interview in January 2020 with the National Director of NINA, a decade-long program working on the construction of indigenous leadership (previously headed by the current vice-president David Choquehuanca), Walter Limache explained that instead of being the instrument of social movements, the social movements had become instrumental to MAS. The two-thirds majority rendered consultation unnecessary. Instead of social movements’ demands and proposals flowing through MAS to the legislative, the decisions would be made at the high levels of the executive branch, reducing the social movements to an endorsing function (Limache, personal communication, La Paz January 2020; see also Farthing 2019 and Zuazo 2010). Clientelist and favouritism practices served to oil this gear wheel but did not prevent fissures and divisions as the effect of postponed demands. This modus operandus, although effective in containing oppositional forces, gradually eroded the relation between the MAS and its social base. Undermined support later would help create the window of opportunity to remove the MAS from power.
This erosion occurred in two dimensions: in State-social movement relation and within the social movement as an organizing process. The relative weight and equivocal position of the social movements conferred them a singular role in Bolivian politics that escapes the analytical dichotomy ‘autonomy vs. co-optation’. Accusations of manipulative and co-opting practices addressed to the MAS government have been recurrent, both in the public and academic debates (Regalsky 2010, Anria 2013, McKay et al. 2014, Hollender 2016, Farthing 2019). The endorsing function arguably led to a gradual deterioration of the capacity of social movements for proposal to and interpellation of the MAS leadership (Limache, personal communication, La Paz January 2020). Within the social movements’ organizations, the leadership changed. Decades of struggle against the State had produced committed and experienced leaderships that went quickly to occupy all sorts of political posts as MAS arrived to power. In the following years, MAS presence grew within the political institutions as the public sector expanded. The leadership of social movements’ organizations was soon perceived as a bridge towards jobs in the public sector. According to Limache, the younger leaders had less experience and were no longer formed in the struggle against the political power but in collaboration with it, resulting in a lower ‘historical consciousness’ and lower commitment (personal communication, La Paz January 2020). As the State absorbed them, the leadership of the social movements’ organizations became weaker and prone to internal fragmentations. This explains in part the emergence of parallel leadership structures, some promoted by the MAS government, in alignment and opposition to the MAS government (see for example Achtenberg, 2015), signalling the fragmentation and weakening of the social movements’ organizations.
Notwithstanding, social movements may be more adequately conceptualized as organizing processes. From this perspective, the putative ‘co-optation’ could also be seen as the cooperative organizing process that flows over the (analytical) borders separating the social movement from other actors. In other words, the organizing processes around specific issues underlying the social movements’ relation to the State show varying levels of oscillation between support and cooperation, and rejection and confrontation. In a situation in which the more profound shared grievances of the popular sectors had attained its historically highest level of representation at the institutional domain but were still under continuous siege by oppositional forces, the perceived urgency and risk of sectorial demands varied, resulting in divergent organizing processes around those demands. The ‘co-optation’ by the MAS government focuses on the social movements’ organizations, structure and leadership, producing a characterization as weak, divided and subjugated. In doing so, it does not recognize the agency of their constituencies (as if they were sheep), and overlooks the fact that the dynamic and strategic calculations vary widely from when the social movement is outside the State and in open conflict with it, to when it enacts a much more complex and contradictory fluidity (as a process) transiting between institutional politics and street politics. From this perspective, the academic signalling of ‘co-optation’ and ‘autonomy’ appears too reductionist, while those in the public debate denote a mere political position.
In addition, structural institutional frailty and corruption gradually damaged the image of the MAS ‘social movements’ government. It must be noted that institutional weakness was not always detrimental to the Morales government as it, for better or for worse, allowed for a greater space of manoeuvre to the MAS charismatic leadership (see Van Cott 2008) and also for the social movements. According to Balderacchi (2017), the informal incorporation of social movements, resulting from weak institutions in Bolivia, permitted them to wield greater influence on the political process in comparison to the experiences of Ecuador and Venezuela. And this applied to social movements both in support and in opposition to the government.
Notwithstanding the multiple and changing forms that the social movement relation with the State can and did take, it remained the icon of legitimate political representation and participation. Amidst a dysfunctional political party system, the social movements emerged as the authentic and effective actors defining the political process in the period 2000-2005. Building and depending on this contentious power, the MAS discourse reinforced the narrative that social movements were politically virtuous, expressing the will of the people and as the true channels of citizen participation. With this narrative, MAS, first as the ‘instrument’ and later as the ‘government’ of social movements, was relatively successful in monopolizing its political capital. But it was precisely this discourse that made the MAS government very vulnerable to social movements that opposed it.
The rise of anti-MAS social movements
In an article of 2011, Salman pointed to the necessity to consider the development of ‘opposition movements’ in Bolivia, as ‘social movement’ seemed always to involve support for the government. The constituent process had seen the rise of opposition social movements around elite regionalist demands. In the years to come, the political opposition stood weak, unarticulated and prevented from any meaningful influence at the institutional level before the two-thirds MAS majority, and turned to ‘street politics’ as means of political participation. In that process, it would expand to include new faces and grievances. In his study of ‘the process of change’, Goodale dedicates a full, comprehensive and elucidating chapter to an ethnography of the opposition (2020). He shows that although ‘conservative’, ‘economic’ and ‘regional’ are salient characteristics, the opposition constitutes ‘a nonlinear process deeply embedded in and shaped by Bolivia’s distinct regional mytho-histories’ incorporating ‘multiple, competing, and alternative’ national projects (p. 97). The contribution of Angus McNelly to this volume also offers an insightful account of the development of the regional autonomy movement as political-economic ‘socio-historic bloc’ that builds on transient processes of class alliances.
This multidimensional resistance to the MAS found an influential expression in social protest. In line with the conceptualization of social movements as an organizing process, these movements encompass a plurality of grievances, demands and actors, with the vague common denominator of being ‘anti-MAS’. Although they condensed in the slogan ‘Morales’ resignation and democracy’ amidst the alleged electoral fraud, the reasons behind the widespread social protests in November 2019 were more complex. I differentiate between a set of grievances of more legitimate nature around issues of democracy and the less legitimate vested interests.
Building on the theoretical tenets of ‘protest State’, the rise of these social movements in the first category answers to the combination of insufficient representation and increasing resource mobilization. The ‘democratic’ demands reflect the promises and high expectations that were generated by the ‘government of social movements’ and the ‘indigenous State’ (Postero 2017) in relation to its relative (and realistic) capacity to fulfil them. The economic bonanza under the Morales administration played a double role in this regard. It inflated the otherwise accurate perception that the State went through a period of unprecedented growth and institutional strength, and it increased the citizen’s access to resources to become aware and mobilize around demands. A significant example of this is the launch of Bolivia’s own telecommunication satellite Tupac Katari in 2013, that extended communication and internet services to remote populations while making it widely accessible by reducing consumer costs.
A first set of ‘democratic’ grievances reflect the local resistance to the implementation of large infrastructural and neo-extractivist projects that were perceived as the betrayal of the State discourse of defence of indigenous rights and the rights of Mother Earth. The TIPNIS-conflict is emblematic. The governmental plan to build a highway through a protected area and indigenous territory mobilized the local indigenous population, under the leadership of Fernando Vargas, around ‘essentialised meanings of indigenous identity ... to attain legitimacy for historical claims to territorial and political rights’ (Perreault and Green 2013)? It was soon joined by the leader of the Confederación de los Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente Boliviano, Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), a painful dissension at the social movement base of support of MAS. The movement achieved nationwide attention and support thanks to extensive although politicized media coverage,4 expanding social protest under a plurality of actors, such as urban youngsters, ecologists, feminists, Indianists and cultural activists (Rivera Cusicanqui 2015).
This reflects the increased resources of the citizenry to become aware and mobilize around demands. In addition, cognizant of the destabilizing and delegitimizing effect of the conflict, the political opposition moved quickly to support the movement, illustrated by the unlikely alliance between Adolfo Chavez with Santa Cruz opposition leader Ruben Costas, who in 2008 had supported an illegal autonomy referendum with an extremely racist content. In the 2014 elections, the fraction of Cl DOB headed by Chavez supported Costas’ Movimiento Demócrata Social (MDS) (Social Democrat Movement), the parallel fraction headed by Melva Hurtado supported MAS, Fernando Vargas was the presidential ticket of opposition alliance Green Party, and indigenous CONAMAQ leading representative Rafael Quispe, having broken with MAS over this conflict, allied with the Frente de Unidad Nacional (National Unity Front) pertaining to businessman Samuel Doria Medina. Aside from the ‘autonomy vs. co-optation’ discussion, the social movement as an organizing process was successful in its aim to stop the construction of the highway.
Another example is the mobilizations headed by the Comité Cívico Potosinista (COMCIPO) (Civic Committee of Potosi) in 2010, 2015 and 2019. One of the poorest provinces of Bolivia, and in line with its colonial past, the economic activity of Potosi heavily depends on external actors: the demand for minerals and international tourism. During the first years of the Morales administration, the mining sector experienced an upturn due to the swelling global demand, leading to increased exploitation by transnationals in the mines of San Cristóbal and San Bartolomé, and posing a serious threat to the local communities’ access to water. As the development of the province lagged behind, the sense of undelivered promises turned into political dissatisfaction erupting into weeks-long strikes in 2010 and 2015. The demands were chiefly material in nature, including unfulfilled promises of constructing hospitals, an airport and land reform, next to an increase of the benefits of the exports of resources for the region. On a deeper level, they reflected the perceived failure of the MAS government to radically transform the country’s economy, maintaining its dependence on the export of raw natural resources and foreign capital investment, a sentiment shared by the local youth that otherwise supported the MAS (Colectivo Lucha de Clases 2017). In both stances, the slogan of regional autonomy resurfaced. By July 2019, in the run-up to the national election, under the leadership of Marco Antonio Pumari, COMCIPO joined other regional civic committees demanding that Morales decline his candidature. Pumari’s national profile increased when he led another COMCIPO strike weeks before the election, demanding the annulment of the joint venture between the government and the German firm ACI for the exploitation and industrialization of lithium. The mobilization claimed that the conditions were detrimental to the Potosí province and its population. These soon conflated with the ones alleging electoral fraud and demanding Morales’ resignation following the October 2019 election, catapulting Pumari to the national stage as one of the leaders of the general upsurge. Morales eventually dissolved the joint venture in early November, probably in the hope to appease the COMC1PO movement against him, proving once again the effectiveness of the social movement in Bolivia.
A second set of ‘democratic’ grievances revolved around the state of democracy in Bolivia, pointing more specifically to the poor performance of State institutions and its deterioration into an authoritarian regime. Corruption was a recurring theme as many cases were brought to light and were widely disseminated by media outlets. The Indigenous Fund case, involving funds aimed for the development of indigenous peoples and implicating social movement organizations’ leadership and State authorities, was particularly painful. Although admitted by the government, the slow progress of the judicial process resulting in low convictions, discredited the MAS administration as another sign of arbitrary use of the judiciary. The government’s attempts to reform and ‘democratise’ the traditionally weak judiciary system with elected judges were perceived as a move towards undermining its independence from the executive power.
‘Democratic’ grievances also developed around Morales’ fourth candidature. Interviews held shortly after the election in October 2019 and in January 2020 with a variety of actors, including MAS members and supporters, former public authorities and members of the anti-MAS Pititas movement, coincided that the 21 February 2016 referendum constituted an inflexion point. At Morales’ first defeat at the ballots since 2002, a thin majority of Bolivians voted against a constitutional reform that would allow him to run for president for the fourth consecutive time. During the period leading up to the referendum, the political opposition successfully pitched the NO campaign in the media as a ‘citizen mobilization’, finding resonance far beyond the traditional opposition of the urban upper classes. It appealed to new segments of the middle class, particularly the so-called ‘Evo generation’ youngsters who had come of age during a period of economic stability and growth as well as of significant reduction of poverty and inequality, and that would cast a vote for the first time in 2016 and 2019. As Achtenberg pointed out (2016), the MAS discourse of transformation and revolution gradually changed into one of pragmatism
Protest State and street politics 45 and stability that could not fully appeal to the youth’s aspirations. To many of them, the elongated presidency of Evo Morales, the only one they could remember, appeared indeed as a sign of deterioration of democracy. The political fatigue of the relation with its social base after more than a decade in government was also reflected in the NO campaign support by dissidents of MAS. Detracting union and social leaders articulated severe criticism against Morales, accusing him of bringing the country further down the road of authoritarianism. These sentiments were confirmed to some and further spread to others when a ruling by the Constitutional Court allowed the fourth candidature of Morales in November 2017.
The successful attempt by the MAS administration to bypass the results of the ‘21F’ incited a new social movement in defence of democracy around the slogans Bolivia dijo NO (Bolivia said NO) and Mi voto se respeta (My vote must be respected). In the months previous to the Constitutional Court ruling, the movement mobilized thousands of people in different cities of the country. By this time, it had become clear that the working class and indigenous face of social protest had found a new subject in the (new) middle class, wealthy and ‘white’. Although at the level of formal politics the issue was settled within the margins of the law, the consecutive mobilizations both against and in favour of the Morales candidature demonstrated that the issue still needed to be settled at the level of street politics, with the important detail that it concerned an issue capable of unifying the opposition. As the 2019 elections moved closer, rallies continued. Despite the fact that most polls previous to the election showed Morales as the favoured choice, or perhaps because of it, eventually the discourse around the alleged authoritarianism and lack of legitimacy of his candidature started to be transferred to the electoral process, questioning the independence of the electoral court, and warning against an upcoming electoral fraud. Here too was the movement successful as this suspicion was amplified by (social) media to become a widespread belief: by September 2019 68% of the population believed electoral fraud would occur (Pagina Siete 2019).
A third strand of resistance emanates from the vested interests of an economic elite displaced from political power, accounting for the more elitist, racist and ciassist face of the opposition that sees the MAS ‘process of change’ as the loss of privilege and position in Bolivian society (see Goodale 2020). These grievances heartened mobilizations around the slogan of autonomy during the constituent period, with severe expressions of racist violence leading eventually to its decline (Gustafson 2009, Farthing 2019, Valdivia 2019). Its most recent articulation is found in the ultra-right-wing Comité Cívico Pro-Santa Cruz (Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee). It represents the Santa Cruz elite that consolidated first as approximately 40 families during the rubber boom to later include large landowners as the region became the largest agricultural exporter (Farthing, 2019), also connected to foreign, predominantly Brazilian, capital (Mckay 2020). After 2009, a series of agreements between the MAS government and the agro-business served to appease resistance, creating a ‘State-capital alliance’ that favoured the agro-business interests while reassuring MAS of its political power (Mckay 2020). They turned out to be but a truce in a struggle to maintain and regain political power tainted by regional, racists and ciassist sentiments. The Comité engrossed the ‘21F’ and ‘Bolivia dijo NO’ movements and catapulted the leadership of Luis Fernando Camacho to the national stage. Days before the election in a multitude cabildo (rally), Camacho claimed that electoral fraud would occur and called for civilian disobedience in the event of a MAS victory while flagging federalism (Correo del Sur 2019). He led the mobilizations in the eastern region after the 2019 election, staging a dramatic delivery of Morales’ letter of resignation and return of the bible to the governmental palace (Infobae 2019), as well as playing a dubious role in the events leading to the ascension of Jeanine Áñez to the presidency (Pando 2020). Later, he bragged about his father’s role in convincing the police and military to turn against Morales (Erbol 2019).