Between Party and Movements

Under MAS, Bolivia has seen massive decreases in poverty — but its social movements have grown weaker.

In Bolivia, the tale is very similar to what’s going on in Ecuador, but with two fundamental differences. One is that social movements actually put the Evo Morales government into power. It wasn’t as if there was a party that was created afterwards or as a vehicle simply to move a social-democratic or left president into power.

The other, which is fundamental to understanding Bolivia, is that Bolivia is a majority-indigenous country. So the dominant paradigm of struggle within the Bolivian context is the struggle for indigenous rights and indigenous people. Indigenous people have resisted colonization — struggled against the light-skinned elites that have run Bolivia — for over five-hundred years.

Bolivia has long been a mining country, completely dependent on export mining. Whether organized through indigenous unions (or labor unions, since the 1950s) or the more recent coalition of indigenous, neighborhood, and labor organizations, the way that politics is and has been done consistently in Bolivia, perhaps more than almost any other country in the world, is in the streets. This has created a political system in which there may be backroom deals between elites, but any kind of progressive process has almost always occurred when large numbers of people have taken to the streets.

These are the movements that thrust Evo Morales into government. His party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), did not consider itself a political party. It defined itself as the political instrument of social movements, which is a very different political stance than the formation of a left political party.

The government quickly semi-nationalized natural gas production and extended services and infrastructure, particularly for rural poor. It framed a lot of its discourse around concepts of decolonization and buen vivir, “living well,” concepts also used in Ecuador. And it put forward a constituent assembly — or supported the process, which was a demand of the social movements — that came up with one of the most radical constitutions that the world has ever produced, which legislated parity for women and a broad extension of indigenous rights, including indigenous autonomy within the state. Unprecedented numbers of women, indigenous people, and working-class people were appointed to high positions in government, including as ministers.

Eleven years later, Bolivia’s middle class has grown by over a million people — which is 10 percent of the population of about ten million — and both the government and the economy, thanks in large part to the commodity boom, have tripled in size. The government had major successes with conditional cash transfers (CCTs), which have been used widely throughout Latin America by both the Left and the Right. Poverty has dropped by half and income equality, as in Ecuador, has declined by a fifth, a substantial amount in any society.

By 2017, this small country, the smallest economy in South America, had the region’s highest growth rate and its highest financial reserves per capita. So by any measure, and certainly compared to its predecessors, what the MAS has achieved is remarkable.

Nevertheless, the underlying economic structure remains largely untouched. While a new class of (often indigenous) traders and small miners has become wealthy, the traditional elites have not been displaced.

The MAS government has also paid very little attention to reforming government and politics, especially after the MAS expanded into urban areas. This is interesting from a party-building perspective: it had been mostly a rural party, based in rural unions. Membership in the MAS was indirect; it came through your popular organization, whatever popular organization you were affiliated with.

But when it moved into urban areas, it became more like a traditional political party, where you would sign up and become affiliated on an individual basis. And that, of course, attracts people who were party operatives — people who would climb on board any train leaving the station so long as they felt they could do well by it.

This started to develop into more of a reversion back to the traditional way of doing politics in Bolivia, which is largely based on clientelism and political patronage. So over time, the number of women and indigenous people in government started to decrease — light-skinned urban professionals replaced them.

Meanwhile, more and more power became concentrated in a small entourage around the president and vice president. “Now it’s our turn” was a commonly heard refrain, particularly in the early years.

What this meant is that the union leaders and government employees would share in the spoils, in a continuation of the way politics has always been done in the country. The MAS wasn’t really addressing the way the government is organized or the way politics is done.

The focus on expanding extraction as the easiest way of expanding infrastructure and services brought the government gradually, but steadily, closer to an alliance with the traditional elites. By 2017, the government had replaced its original discourse of societal transformation with one focused on the newfound economic stability it had delivered to the country, which has been notoriously unstable.

In the process, its political agenda became far more centrist; it moved away from its older commitment to communitarian socialism and toward the policies that have been successful in encouraging capitalist growth. (The opposition is very divided, so it is very likely that Evo Morales will win again in 2018 even in the face of declining commodity prices.)

The MAS inherited a country that was very impoverished, one where relentless resource extraction had left a legacy of environmental destruction. Butthere’s an accelerated process of resource extraction under Morales. Bolivia has the highest rate of deforestation in Latin America, for example. The MAS government, like the Correa government, has been locked in an endless tug-of-war between providing more services— which ensures it will continue to be elected— and limiting the destructive extraction that is ravaging the country.

Now, economically speaking, Bolivia is still dependent, as it always has been. But it is no longer as dependent on European countries and the United States as it has been historically. Its economic dependency has shifted to Brazil and China.

Bolivia’s social movements were unrivaled in the region. This handed the MAS government an opportunity and a challenge that was not found elsewhere, even in other Pink Tide countries. But with no viable right-wing opposition, the MAS has squandered the opportunity for more far-reaching social transformation by coopting the social movements. By 2014, the social movements were a shadow of their former selves, with their leaders demoralized and working either in the government itself or in organizations controlled by the government.

This weakening of social movements in a place like Bolivia, given its political culture of the streets, has been devastating. The social movements have lost the ability to launch any sort of really viable challenge. They have been coopted by the government and by the MAS party.

All in all, the opportunity for progressive change that the social movements in Bolivia once promised has been lost. At the same time, though, material conditions for a large percentage of the impoverished population have improved substantially. That’s something we should never lose sight of.

Editor’s note: Our recent issue, “By Taking Power,” covered the rise and fall of the Pink Tide in Latin America. At the 2017 Left Forum in New York City, Jacobin and NACLA cohosted a panel discussion on the state of the Left in Latin America.