The Two Bolivias

Controversy over Bolivia’s election reflects deep fissures in the country.

President of Bolivia Evo Morales speaks during a press conference on October 24, 2019 in La Paz, Bolivia. Javier Mamani / Getty

Preliminary results suggest that Evo Morales secured victory in Bolivia’s presidential elections on Sunday. While he didn’t win an absolute majority, with 95.6 percent of the vote counted, Morales has 46.9 of the total. His closest rival, Carlos Mesa, is at 36.7 percent. If Morales’s advantage stays over 10 percent, he’ll avoid a potentially tricky runoff.

However, opposition parties are accusing the government of vote rigging, continuing a string of controversy that has surrounded the election since a 2016 referendum, which proposed constitutional amendments to allow Morales to run for a third term. When the president narrowly lost that referendum, he refused to recognize the result, relying on the country’s supreme court to make the constitutional change regardless, removing all presidential term limits.

The governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) argued that fake news about a phantom child belonging to the president swung the referendum vote, while an enraged opposition called for a coup d’état if Morales were to win October’s election.

It’s just the latest saga in fissures that threaten the country and its experiment in popular left-wing governance.

Democracy in the Two Bolivias

Between Bolivia’s return to democracy in 1982 and the election of Morales in 2005, no presidential candidate was able to win a majority. The country’s political parties were barely distinguishable, each garnering around 20 percent of the vote at elections. Governments were made through pacts brokered behind closed doors with little popular input.

In 1988, Jaime Paz Zamorra won the presidential elections despite only having the third-largest share of the vote. If the Bolivian right today declares itself committed to liberal democratic institutions, in practice it has done little to foster them.

Between 2009 and 2016, Bolivia enjoyed a period of political and economic stability — a rarity in a tempestuous country that is also the poorest in South America. Despite a couple of disruptions — notably the 2010–11 struggles that sought to block the construction of a highway through an indigenous territory (TIPNIS), as well as the removal of gas subsidies — Morales has maintained a high level of popularity amongst large sections of the population.

Many put this down to the perception of a strong economy, with persistent growth, as well as redistributive policies working to reduce both absolute poverty and inequality. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (CEPAL) reports that Bolivia achieved the region’s greatest reduction in extreme poverty, which dropped from 38.2 percent in 2005 to 15.2 percent in 2018.

At the same time, the country’s Gini coefficient has fallen from 58.5 in 2005 to 44 in 2017, reflecting a huge reduction in inequality. As a recent article by Bolivian journalist Fernando Molina demonstrates, this is a major factor in Morales’s success. Foreign journalists of all strips agree, praising “Bolivia’s remarkable socialist success story” and the Morale government’s sound macroeconomic management.

For these reasons, Morales’s first-round reelection had, until recently, seemed a foregone conclusion, but the recent Amazon wildfires shifted the political terrain. When a devastating blaze spread across the Chiquitania region of Santa Cruz this summer, engulfing three and half million hectares of forest, Morales was criticized for his reaction to the crisis. Lowland communities were angered by the government’s slow response, while environmental critics condemned the government’s new decrees and laws, which saw increased deforestation and slash-and-burn forest-clearing.

This criticism has been picked up and mobilized by the resurgent lowland opposition, keen to undermine Morales and his cultivated image as an environmentalist. Though the government’s response to the wildfires could have certainly been better, it’s clear that the fires have also been used opportunistically by the lowland opposition — themselves longtime proponents and benefactors of deforestation and agroindustry. This insight reveals that the old fractures from the crisis that transformed Bolivia twenty years ago.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, existing divisions between the eastern lowlands and western highlands were hardened, creating the image of “two Bolivias,” each premised on ethnic difference. The radical social movements that carried Morales to power had a transformative potential that realized the worst fears of certain sections of the Bolivian elite, groups accustomed to privilege bestowed upon them by land ownership, ethnicity, and family name. Indeed, a major victory of this decade, realized by social movements under the tutelage of Evo Morales, has been a (still incomplete) breaking down of colonial, racial hierarchies, and an opening up of society to indigenous communities.

Railing against this progress (and the accompanying land reform proposed by the first Morales government), a coalition of lowland regions — Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija — known as the media luna (half-moon) has pursued a program regional autonomy. This relied on a racist discourse that cast those in the highlands as barbaric and parasitic, living off the productive modernity of the lowland region. In 2008, it almost succeeded in splitting the country in in two.

This attempt failed in the face of a massacre of peasant activists in Porvenir on September 11, 2008, which was met with international condemnation. Nevertheless, the notion of regional injustice, disseminated by the autonomy movement, had been instilled in many of those in the media luna popular classes. These ideas are not necessarily articulated in elite demands for autonomy, but are expressed in the everyday lives of people from this region — in their complaints of a perceived regional injustice, and in their gripes about highlanders benefitting off those in the lowlands. These sentiments are normally hidden from view by concessions to agribusiness and the alliance of sections of agroindustrial capital with the MAS.

Old Wounds

This truce, however, is now fraying. After ten years of silence, lowland opposition is back. Recently, the Santa Cruz autonomy movement drew over a million people to a public meeting, an enormous turnout reflecting how regional tensions have flared up again in Bolivia. Those protesting on the streets of Santa Cruz should by no means be mistaken for a coalition of environmentalists, pro-democracy forces, and local youths. On the contrary, the old, racist forces of the lowland right are pulling the strings, as revealed this month during the violent clashes in Santa Cruz, which saw the reappearance of the protofascist youth wing of the Comité Pro-Santa Cruz, the Cruceño Youth Union (UJC).

This offers an intriguing window through which to view the current political conjuncture in Bolivia. It appears that the lowland right are regaining political strength, a process helped by the renewal of local leadership in organizations such as the Comité Pro-Santa Cruz and the UJC. The old divisions can likewise be read into the election results, with Carlos Mesa collecting a majority of votes in the media luna departments of Beni, Santa Cruz, Tarija, and Chuquisaca.

Morales’s campaign visit to Potosí also sparked violence and mass civil disobedience, prompting the president to flee by helicopter. Events there have opened old political fissures in the department, and the demand for federalism — a demand which was at the heart of a month-long civil strike in the city during 2010 — has resurfaced. The Right is on the ascendency and the Left — independent of the MAS — is nowhere to be seen.

The political wounds opened during Morales’s fifteen-year tenure have not healed, as many had assumed, but festered. But these divisions are not found on the terrain of electoral politics — the front-running presidential candidates both hail from either the highland plateau or the subtropical valleys. (The lowland candidate, the autonomy movement leader Oscar Ortiz, finished in fourth place with less than 5 percent of the vote.)

This is not surprising given the weakness of the oppositional parties — negative campaigns have failed to capture the politics of these fissures, and the manifestos of Mesa and the other main candidates confronting Morales can be blithely encapsulated by the slogan “Not Evo!” They encouraged tactical voting not for an alternative but against the status quo.

But looking beyond the ineptitude of opposition parties, these divides run deep, and go beyond the electoral terrain. They play out in the streets, outside of liberal-democratic institutions. Looking beyond the final result of last weekend’s election, it is the politics there that will be decisive.