Latin America’s Pink Tide Isn’t Over
In today’s Bolivian election, Evo Morales is running for a historic fourth term as president. Vice President Álvaro García Linera spoke to Jacobin about how their Movement for Socialism can make their revolution permanent — and stop the rise of the far right in Latin America.
- Interview by
- Iago Moreno
- Denis Rogatyuk
This year is proving to be a decisive one in Latin America. On the one hand, various conservative and far-right governments have been mired in crises. These have ranged from the mounting protests against Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil after the Amazon fires, to the popular uprising against Lenín Moreno’s turncoat government in Ecuador and its IMF-sanctioned economic reforms, and continued setbacks for Mauricio Macri’s neoliberal administration in Argentina.
On the other hand, progressive and left-wing forces are still regrouping after years of coups, electoral defeats, and continued media onslaught. There are some positive signs: AMLO’s government in Mexico is making crucial reforms to the state and investigating the disappearance of forty-three students in Guerrero state, while in Argentina the left-Peronist “Front for All” seems assured of electoral victory after a strong showing in August’s primaries. Yet Uruguay’s “Broad Front” faces an uphill battle in the coming elections, and despite promising changes in Chile heralded by Camila Vallejo’s fight for a forty-hour workweek and the political rise of Daniel Jadue, the Communist mayor of Recoleta, the Left remains divided.
The other key electoral battleground is a land at the heart of the recent Pink Tide in Latin America, namely Bolivia, which heads to the polls today. President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader since Túpac Katari in the eighteenth century, is seeking his fourth consecutive term. The man who began his political life as a trade union activist and the leader of the coca growers’ union has so far proven to be one of the most successful presidents in the country’s history.
Since taking power in 2006, his Movement for Socialism (MAS) government has taken a number of transformative measures. These have ranged from the nationalization of a significant part of the country’s decisive hydrocarbon industry; the rewriting of the constitution and the recognition of the country’s unique “plurinational” indigenous identity; the recognition of the rights of pachamama (mother nature); the redistribution of the country’s natural wealth through massive spending on social infrastructure (such as the Teleférico cable car system in La Paz), health, and education; and the creation of a number of social programs (such as Bono Juancito Pinto and Renta Dignidad).
This has resulted in vast poverty reduction in South America’s poorest country. Indeed, Bolivia’s poverty rate has fallen from 60.6 percent in 2005 to 34.6 percent last year, with extreme poverty falling from 38.2 to 15.2 percent in the same period. During Morales’s rule the Gini coefficient measuring inequality has been cut from 0.6 to 0.45, and in recent years the country has also enjoyed the region’s most consistently high levels of economic growth.
Yet despite such successes, electoral victory is far from assured for Morales. A defeat in the 2016 referendum on presidential term limits has fueled the opposition, particularly in the historic right-wing bastion of Santa Cruz, while a pseudo-environmentalist campaign backed by American foundations and “activists” like Jhanisse Daza has sought to blame Morales for fires in Chiquitania province. His opponents in today’s contest, representing different factions of the right-wing and neoliberal consensus that ruled Bolivia before 2006, include former president Carlos Mesa, the leader of the “Bolivia Says No” movement Óscar Ortiz, and the evangelical-backed, far-right newcomer Chi Hyun Chung.
Most importantly of all, Morales faces the challenge of continuing a revolutionary project opposed to capitalism and neocolonialism, whose long-term survival depends on simultaneously fulfilling the expectations of the country’s powerful indigenous social and trade union movements, while implementing a program of industrialization and growth in a land traditionally dependent on exporting natural resources. Journalists Denis Rogatyuk and Iago Moreno sat down with the country’s vice president, Álvaro García Linera, to discuss the coming elections, the record of Morales’s government, and the bases of future transformative change.
We’d like to begin with some analysis of the current political landscape in Bolivia. What is the situation today as compared to the last election in 2014 — has MAS’s political space been reduced by the emergence of figures like Carlos Mesa and Óscar Ortiz?
Each election is particular, and no situation simply repeats itself. The opposition today has different faces to five or ten years ago, but one thing has stayed the same — the lack of an alternative state project for the economy and society.
That’s their main weakness. Indeed, beyond their particular faces, party names, or rhetoric, the conservative forces’ great limit is that they have not been able to rise to the new era characterized by the plurinational state.
That is, they do not have a distinct state project for the articulation of the popular classes and the ruling classes. They do not have a distinct economic project that confronts or overcomes the current presence of the state as the main economic actor and distributor of wealth. Nor are they — openly at least — able to propose an alternative to the present empowerment of indigenous peoples within the construction of the plurinational state.
So if we call these things the three arms of Bolivia’s economy and politics over the last decade, we see that the conservative forces have no alternative project of their own. In this sense, the situation looks similar to five years ago.
We will have to see how this plays out in terms of how people vote. But we are confident that the fundamental bases of our project, and the hegemonic structure of the plurinational state, will endure.
For years, what you described as the ideological media effort to assert an “end of the cycle” sought to project Latin America’s future as an inevitable return to the long night of neoliberalism. Yet AMLO’s unprecedented victory in Mexico and the surprising advance for the Frente de Todos (Front for All) in the Argentinian primaries seem to have shown that this supposedly “inevitable” move back into line was in fact a chimera. What role do you think Bolivia will play in the new regional alliances — and what possibility is there of a new continental power bloc?
There has been a curious kind of marriage or philosophical coincidence between the discourse of the end of history, put forward by liberal currents in the 1980s, and certain leftist or progressive currents who have spoken of the end of the progressive cycle in Latin America.
I say “coincide” because they share a teleological view of history, as if based on laws that stand above human action. Yet the evidence of history is that it does not move according to laws, and there can be no teleological philosophy of history without contingency. History always also includes the novel, the unpredictable, the sense of possibility.
Hence even when some people were already repeating that the left-wing cycle was over and that a new conservative era was on its way, there came the victories in Mexico. So they said that even this was just the last hurrah of the progressive cycle. But then came Argentina, and we may expect victories in Bolivia and Uruguay, too.
What these fantasy readings do not understand is that historical processes do not move through cycles, by way of “laws” independent of human action, but rather in tides. Collective actions and social struggles arise in tides — they arrive, they advance, they make ground, conquer, reach a limit, stop, retreat, but then they can come back again to drive a fresh tide and then another one.
I believe that we are seeing a fresh tide of progressive processes in a world and a Latin America which are looking for alternatives to inequality, misery, and exploitation. We should see that concretized later in October.
The second aspect of this reading is that it conceives of conservative victories — this return of neoliberalism — as the beginning of a long cycle that could last for ten or twenty years. Yet that is not how things really are.
The big problem of this neoliberalism 2.0 is that it is not a project for society but, above all, a kind of revenge, an attitude of settling accounts. It is not about enthusing people but rather agitating people’s harshened emotions in order to offer easy scapegoats for their problems. Yet this is thin gruel.
It is not possible to build a lasting hegemony — a moral tolerance of the governing by the governed — on the basis of hatred and resentment alone. So this neoliberalism 2.0 has very limited possibilities, for it has not created a new proposal for society and how we should live.
That’s what it did in the 1980s — and that was its strength. While others sought to conserve what already existed, the neoliberals said, “We’re going to change the world, with free enterprise, globalization, the free market economy, and free trade deals.” This was a proposal for life, for society, which captured the enthusiasm, the agreement, and the active support of subaltern sectors of the popular classes. But today the neoliberals are not doing that.
Moreover, this neoliberalism 2.0 emerged in a moment in which the whole world is seeing a collapse in the belief in the end of history — a belief based on the neoliberal precepts of Britain and the United States. Thirty years ago they were the champions of free trade but today they are protectionists while China, with its one-party state and planned economy, is the standard-bearer of free trade.
The communists have become free-traders, and the champions of the free market and liberal democracy have turned into protectionists — everything is upside down. So the neoliberal offer and its models are not attractive. If the United States and Britain were once used as the horizon we ought to chase, now they are rather more against the current.
In this scenario of generalized chaos and the collapse of the neoliberal, pro-globalization narrative, the neoliberal projects developing in certain countries no longer have the same sparkle, the strength, the sense of conviction, or the all-encompassing that they once did — and nor are they firing people’s enthusiasm.
They may last for years in order to settle accounts, so that the upper classes can take revenge on the middle or popular classes. But they cannot attract the collective spirit of society in any enduring way. They are short-term projects, and sooner rather than later they will be confronted by new waves of popular discontent, for what they are creating is rising poverty.
MAS’s project has combined various dimensions of revolutionary politics: the management of the state, the political struggle against the opposition, meeting social movement demands, and fulfilling and updating revolutionary tasks. What are the main centers of gravity of political power within MAS, and what are the main challenges presenting Evo Morales’s government?
One of the many lessons that Bolivia has drawn is based on the fact that you can’t build governability or social and political stability only through parliamentary force. It is built through collective action, with a territorial presence in the streets. That’s decisive.
The pillars of governability that we have built obviously include a parliamentary majority but so, too, a social majority in the streets. This collective action is a key element for understanding the new forms of democratization. The other pillar is the complex and flexible articulation of social organizations in the structures of power and decision-making. Trade unions, professional associations, peasant and indigenous federations, and neighborhood associations form a power structure within the state.
By “flexible” I mean that sometimes these organizations withdraw or are again reincorporated: the structure of government is a flexible confederation of social organizations. MAS is less a party than a fluid, loose, negotiated organization of social organizations. This is another novelty in the forms of collective organization which (as Antonio Gramsci put it) become the state, become the government, and give a different dynamic to the Bolivian political process.
As for the challenges, there are several. The fact that plebeian Bolivia today has access to positions of power, of decision-making in parliaments, ministries, town halls, and regional governments from which they had been permanently excluded, has driven a healthy appetite for participation, to make a kind of career from workers’ leader to councilor, MP, or minister.
I am not criticizing this attitude. After five hundred years of marginalization, in which the handling of questions of government was limited to a few families, this marks an expansion of the right to be recognized and to make decisions. But this generates a problem in social organization. For when these militants, trade unionists, workers, peasants, and indigenous Bolivians make their rapid rise through the ranks in social administration, passing over to state politics, this deprives the unions of political cadres. This translates into a slow depoliticization of the country’s social structures, and in the longer term this could prove very complicated.
Necessary, then, is a permanent repoliticization of social sectors. In Bolivia we replace 98 percent of our MPs, senators, mayors, councilors, and regional assembly members every five years. This is a very fast rate of turnover in our political cadres, and at the intermediate level of leadership there are people with less training, shorter careers, less experience, which can in part weaken the unions’ organizational structure.
For me, this is one of the risks ahead of us. And that demands that over the next five years we support the repoliticization of trade-union life and the training of the leading cadres in unions, professional associations, and peasant and indigenous communities. This is the first challenge we must face.
In 2017 you said you wanted to free up more time and space to dedicate yourself to what you called “the goal of training up new communist cadres.” But the demands of the Bolivian process have required you to stay on as vice presidential candidate for another term. Nonetheless, this continues to be one of the big plans in your thinking, and one of the fundamental tasks in the project’s long-term survival. What would you see as the main contours of this permanent work of training up cadres, and what role will be played by youth organizations around MAS like La Resistencia, Generación Evo, Siglo XXI, and Columna Sur, as well as its international ties?
These youth structures are a great achievement, a vital force that enriches and constantly renews ideas and leaderships. So these structures have to be empowered. But it is also necessary to strengthen collective political and ideological training, leadership development and opinion-formation in trade unions, in peasant communities and in neighborhood leaderships.
The MAS is, fundamentally, a plebeian structure uniting various social organizations, and the decision-makers in MAS belong to these social sectors. It is here, then, that more direction in cadre development is necessary. I have every intention of creating a cadre school over the next five years, for young people of various social sectors but also of trade unionists, members of residents’ associations, and both manual and intellectual workers.
It should not be forgotten that the first generation who entered governmental structures with MAS came from two different fields — from the old left-wing training done by the socialist and communist parties and the party-political left, and from the old cadre-formation in the unions that came through mass marches, road blockades, persecution, and jail. This was the “youth academy” that provided the first generation of personnel for MAS in government.
Now there are no longer big marches and blockades — and that’s a good thing. But that means there also isn’t the “school” that marches and blockades provide in terms of training cadres, and the formation that the forces of the Left provided over the decades has also been greatly weakened, for MAS has absorbed them. So, we haven’t seen the continuation of the old small-scale but very dense activism. The new situation demands work on both fronts: among youth, yes, but also with social organizations, in the perspective of developing new, ideologically well-trained and politically well-prepared leaderships in the battles ahead of us.
After years of US interference in the change process in Bolivia, today’s new “Condor Plans” seem to be betting on orchestrating a kind of “color revolution” financed and supported from the outside. The takeover of certain universities by the opposition, the disinformation campaigns around the fires in Chiquitania, and the resurgence of opposition violence and lockouts evidence this same tendency. What mechanisms of democratic self-defense do the peoples of Bolivia have to stand up for themselves against this type of ideological-cultural siege?
I think in politics the enemy will always do everything possible to weaken you — by definition. If not, they wouldn’t be enemies. Even if you don’t see it, they’re doing it: you have to assume that.
I also believe that when someone throws a heavy object at a vase, what causes it to break is not the object being thrown but the fragility of the vase — that is, you have to construct something unbreakable that will resist when something is thrown at it. That’s how I imagine revolutionary processes: you’re always going to have attacks coming from one side or another, from foreign countries and imperial interests. It would be naive not to expect such actions. But we then need to build something able to withstand this.
That is what we have tried to do these last thirteen years — to build a vase that will not be broken by the blows coming from the outside. It’s clear that in recent times conservative forces and the conservative intelligentsia around the world have improved their tactics, in a certain sense becoming more Gramscian. They also use culture, the built-up sediment of common sense, and seek to build consent and lasting support. This is just what the Left did. Having long been marginal, we strove to build strong ideas, little ideas that could capture part of the collective imaginary.
Tell me how much influence you have over common sense, and I’ll tell you what your political strength is. The Left started from that. Our theoretical debates, our training programs, and our capacity to analyze the concrete situation were used to establish key ideas that could spread more broadly and capture people’s imagination. The Right knows this and is trying to do the same, replacing the hard coup and dictatorships with a battle over key ideas, the dominant common sense, the logical, moral, procedural, and instrumental order of people’s everyday lives.
So they, too, are now more sophisticated, and as the Left our battle now is more complicated. But no matter — for unless you face an intelligent adversary, you yourself will come to have clear limits. It is your adversary’s strongholds, their strategic advantages, that oblige you to develop your capacities in order to confront and defeat them.
I am not surprised by the opposition’s tactics, we expected them, but that demands that we reply with our own new strategies and tactics that can both overcome this offensive and recapture the general outlook on the world and the future from the progressive side. What we’re living through now is new but not surprising.
Speaking of future strategies and the new maneuvers by your opponents, we wanted to ask you about the new challenges linked to social media. The last Brazilian election demonstrated the dangerous turn in this field: after years in which the internet was optimistically given the aura of democratic debate, it has turned out to be controlled by a minority of transnationals and global powers. Today networks like Facebook and WhatsApp are the base for the intensive deployment of bots and trolls, and indeed are the spearhead of massive disinformation campaigns. According to many critical voices, the lack of democratic antibodies on the internet in Bolivia has been reflected firstly in the referendum defeat of February 21, 2016 (a failed bid to loosen presidential term limits) and secondly with the ease with which the opponents of the plurinational state have managed to fill social media with disinformation on Chiquitania. Will the next term also be a period of cyber-sovereignty? Does Bolivia’s change process also have to become millions-strong online?
Certainly, social media has introduced a new platform in the political arena, a new technical basis for the construction of public opinion. First, we had the face-to-face, verbalized forms of building public opinion that go back millennia, and then came the printing press, newspapers, radio, television, and now the internet.
These are five fundamental technical platforms for communication, and each has its own complexities, its own characteristics, its own virtues, limits, and forms of manipulation. Social media is new and has to be understood. But I’m not one of those who believe that it can reinvent the wheel. It can create imaginaries, distort realities, and reinforce certain prejudices, just as newspapers, radio, and television did in their time.
Just as in the case of other platforms, whoever has more cash will exert more power. Those who can use AI to profile the electorate, even according to your favorite film and the colors you like, can send you messages in the right colors at the right moment to catch your attention.
But they can’t just make anything up — and it’s not as if AI can manipulate your brain so that after previously thinking one thing you instantly change and think something else instead. Television, too, used to be called the idiot box. But people aren’t fools, or a sponge that absorbs just anything. Human beings are always creatures of belief, and clearly the web is a fantastic arena for manipulating and reorienting what people think. But to work, these beliefs must be framed in terms that have some material connection with reality.
The web plays an important role in informing and misinforming people, but it cannot create a perfectly manipulable world totally different from what the citizen lives in their everyday life. After all, you compare the information you’ve seen online with your own life: when you go to buy bread, when you get on a bus, when you speak with your workmates, ultimately you are left with what is most substantial and most connected to your own experience.
So now we have a new platform with new rules, new technologies, new forms of organization, of collective will, of information, that are more sophisticated, more complicated, and more difficult to navigate. But this is also part of a system of platforms that humanity has been building for thousands of years. We have learned about the important role they play and are gradually making our own incursion onto them.
Faced with the manipulations of AI by some foreign government, business, or over-financed political party, we have to compensate by using AI to spread more reliable and accurate information. A new world has, indeed, opened up with the web, but it’s a new world whose rules of engagement and tactics are not so different from those that Sun Tzu confronted 3,500 years ago.
I’d like to conclude with a more personal question. You have been a trade unionist, a guerrilla in the Ejército Túpac Katari, a professor, and a vice president. So, who is Álvaro García Linera? How has your political trajectory evolved? And what intellectual reference points have most influenced you?
Since my teenage years, I’ve been a socialist, a communist, a man who understands that the life worth living is that which helps transform people’s conditions of existence in the interest of greater equality, justice, and freedom. And all the rest is just secondary considerations, temporary tools, contingent to this labor that defines the communist or the socialist.
By socialism and communism, I don’t mean party activism, but activism in the service of a certain horizon for society. In the Bolivian case, you cannot be a socialist, a communist, if you do not understand your reality, including Bolivia’s own workers’ movement, its indigenous movement, and its indianismo (championing the indigenous peoples of Bolivia). You cannot be a communist in Bolivia unless you are also an indianista.
I am constantly working to take on board the contemporary debate, ideological battles, and advances in the various areas of the social sciences. I like to absorb this knowledge, but it’s also clear that this cannot be useful as a mere exercise in logical reflection, words, and ideas, which is rather too simple. Rather, I can study all this in order to delve deeper into what is happening in Bolivia, Latin America, and the wider world, among indigenous (and nonindigenous) Bolivians, workers, and to understand subjects like poverty, social malaise, elites, interference, and colonialism.
I have always fused these ideas with others borne from our own experience. This ideological and spiritual articulation began at the start of my activism back in high school. And I’ve never changed in that sense. Sometimes there are certain authors that influence me more and certain political actions that I see as more relevant. But as time passes, others do more to attract my attention, surprising me with their politics, and they’re the ones who enthuse me most. But there’s a constant red thread, which is this socialist, communist, indianista activism. I don’t think I’ve changed in that regard — that is what will sustain me so long as I live. What comes after that, we don’t know.