What Is Going on With the Bolivian Left?

Bolivia’s governing MAS party is mired in a deep crisis, the result of political infighting and a sharp economic downturn. If the country’s leftist leaders cannot come to some agreement, the unity of organized labor and indigenous movements may be at risk.

Bolivian president Luis Arce Catacora (C-L), Vice President David Choquehuanca (L), and Juan Carlos Huarachi (C-R), executive secretary of the Bolivian Workers' Union (COB), attend a town hall meeting called by MAS in El Alto on October 17, 2023. (Aizar Raldes / AFP via Getty Images)

Bolivia’s governing party and a shining light of the Latin American left, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), is mired in a deep internal crisis.

Recently, during the MAS congress in the coca-growing town of Lauca Ñ, President Luis Arce and his vice president, David Choquehuanca, were expelled from the party and prevented from running in the 2025 national elections. In his place, the party nominated its leader, former Bolivian president Evo Morales, who aims to return to the presidential palace in 2025.

The split between arcistas and evistas is a battle to control one of the most successful political machines in Latin America. In large part, it hinges on the Chapare coca-growing unions’ efforts to maintain their hegemony within the MAS.

But the situation is not confined to the arena of party politics. The conflict has engulfed the coalition of social movements known as the Pacto de Unidad, which was pivotal in bringing Morales to power in 2005. The split has grave implications for the unity of organized labor and peasant and indigenous movements in Bolivia, one of Latin America’s poorest countries.

A Government of the Movements?

The MAS has always presented itself as a political outsider, as an “instrument” and not a party. It arose from the peasant movement in the 1990s and was able to ride the wave of popular anti-neoliberal protests that, between 2000 and 2005, saw miners, indigenous and peasant organizations, and urban communities united in struggle.

But in many ways, the current split has been longer in the making. Morales’s and MAS’s decade-long hold on power had grown shaky in the years running up to 2019, his time in office creating new tensions between the party’s social movement base and its governing institutions.

The MAS is not so much a unified political party as a coalition of social movements. However, Angus McNelly, senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Greenwich, contends that “not all movements are equal in this coalition, and not all have a so-called ‘organic relationship’ with the MAS.”

Morales came to power as the head of the coca growers union federation, a major player in the array of movements buttressing the MAS. However, as McNelly argues, “the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the miner-dominated trade union confederation, the peasant union confederation, and the coca growers confederations, as well as the broader indigenous movements from the highlands and valleys, have a contingent relationship with the MAS and have been — and still have to be — actively integrated into the MAS political project.”

In the later years of Morales’s second term (2009–2014), tensions emerged as social movements struggled to retain autonomy in their relationship with the state. Within their organizational structures, those loyal to the dominant factions in the party supplanted critics, entrenching a system of cronyism and undermining the organic leadership of the organizations.

There are several figures who came from the party’s base who have since extricated themselves from the MAS, frustrated in part at what they saw as caudillismo emanating from Morales. One prominent example is Eva Copa, the current mayor of the city of El Alto, a MAS stronghold with a working-class indigenous (Aymara) identity. She was a senator for the MAS between 2015 and 2020, and she took over the presidency of the legislative chamber after the 2019 coup, which ultimately led to her expulsion from the party.

Huáscar Salazar, an economist and a member of the Centro de Estudios Populares in Bolivia, explains to Jacobin, “The political crisis of the MAS responds to several reasons, but among the most important is the way in which the party, during the last decade and a half, has become a vertical and authoritarian structure, with very little room for renewal, a dynamic that has permeated the social organizations controlled by the MAS.”

For example, in 2011, the lowland indigenous organization the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), which represents highland indigenous communities, split from the MAS following its attempt to build a road through the protected Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, known as TIPNIS.

The Chapare Cocaleros and the MAS

The crucial player in the ongoing feud is the coca-growing federation in the Chapare region, known as the Six Federations, whose president is the young and charismatic Andrónico Rodríguez, an ally of Morales and the leader of the Senate. Since the coup, elements within the coca unions have regarded Arce and Choquehuanca as purely interim leaders.

However, in the absence of Morales, the coca grower’s influence within the MAS has been undermined. Salazar adds, “When Morales stops being president, and especially when Arce assumed the presidency, the capacity for control of the coca-growing wing of the party was lost.”

That the recent MAS congress took place in the tropical coca-growing region of Cochabamba — Morales’s political heartland — is symbolically important. Arce and many social movements — notably the Interculturales of Santa Cruz, a group of agricultural communities in the eastern Bolivian region — refused to participate in the Lauca Ñ congress.

According to local newspaper El Deber, the Interculturales issued a statement condemning what they consider a “restricted and discriminatory participation” of the social organizations that make up the MAS, urging the party not to fall into “internal organic divisions due to personal interests.”

The economic climate has also exacerbated some of the tensions within the party as factions compete for dwindling state resources. This year, Bolivia began to experience major dollar shortages, driven partly by a decline in gas production, one of its biggest exports.

“Another important factor is that the Bolivian state has much fewer economic resources,” Salazar explains, “and therefore, the clientelist dynamics of the MAS tend to be reduced in scope, which has generated many internal conflicts that have taken shape around the dispute among the leadership of the party.”

The Unions in Crisis

The bitter disputes in the MAS are spilling over into Bolivian political life more broadly. In August this year, the congress in El Alto of the peasant union confederation, the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), descended into violence as Morales and Arce delegates began punching and throwing chairs at each other. Both Arce and Choquehuanca were booed by some delegates when they gave speeches.

Afterward, Arce issued a government statement condemning “internal and external interests that seek to destabilize not only the government but also our social organizations.”

The split is also reflected in the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the miner-led powerful umbrella trade union confederation. Calls for Juan Carlos Huarachi, the current leader of the COB, to resign have been circulating on social media by those who consider him to have betrayed Morales. Noticeably, Huarachi did not attend the MAS congress in Lauca Ñ.

During the coup of 2019, despite leading the miners out in support of Morales on the streets, Huarachi eventually called for Morales to resign as a peacemaking gesture. In a tweet last week, Morales accused Huarachi of betraying the values of the COB and of receiving $80,000 from a coup leader, Arturo Murillo, in return for his support of the government.

Morales has similarly been dropping barbed comments directed at Arce and Choquehuanca and their allies. On his Sunday program on Radio Kawsachun Coca, he reportedly lamented their failure to defend the “process of change” or the political vision of the MAS.

On Wednesday, Vice President David Choquehuanca issued a veiled critique of Morales at a women’s meeting in La Paz, saying, “Bolivia must be saved from confrontation, from sabotage, from authoritarianism, from hatred, from racism, from the leaders who divide us. We must reflect on the leaders who confront us, on the leaders who sow hatred, and we must help them.”

An indigenous Aymara activist leader, Choquehuanca was a close ally of Morales since the 1990s, when they worked together to form the MAS. In Morales’s government, he was minister for foreign affairs and headed up the anti-imperialist Latin American trading bloc ALBA. He was formerly picked to be the presidential candidate in Morales’s absence. He comes from the indianista wing of the MAS and represents the decolonizing vision within the government, in close alliance with peasant-indigenous social movements.

Crisis Erupts: The 2019 Coup

It is important to see the current crisis as connected with the dramatic political events of October–November 2019, when Morales was toppled as president and a wave of right-wing mobilizations enabled an evangelical senator from Beni, Jeanine Áñez, to install herself as president.

Áñez presided over two massacres in which at least thirty people protesting the power grab were killed by military forces. In 2022, she was sentenced to ten years in prison for her role in the coup.

It is clear that the seizure of power by the Right only succeeded within the context of a weakened left-indigenous movement, a rising tide of public discontent, and internal party discord as the president’s legitimacy was increasingly called into question.

Indeed, McNelly’s recent book on Bolivia, Now We Are in Power, argues that the two explosive narratives about the 2019 crisis — coup d’état and fraud — were in part a result of these internal tensions and Morales’s attempts to manage them. These narratives emerged long before the actual coup occurred and acted as splintering forces that fueled the violence in 2019.

In 2016, Morales narrowly lost a referendum that would have allowed him to run for a fourth term as president. The 2009 Bolivian constitution then placed a term limit of two consecutive presidential terms.

The MAS petitioned the Plurinational Constitutional Court to abolish term limits on the basis that it would infringe upon Morales’s human rights. Because the court was packed with Morales allies, this was seen as illegitimate, and the decision to circumvent the referendum results was instrumental in the protest movements that took to the streets in the coup of 2019. Many of those protesting were disaffected middle-class urban youth, with the country’s main university, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA), being a vocal hub of discontent.

In the power vacuum that followed, Morales’s absence from the leadership opened a space for new leaders to emerge within the party structures and movements. Arguably, this had a revitalizing effect on the social movements, evidenced in the wave of blockades and strikes in late 2021, which forced the coup government to hold fresh elections. In 2021, the MAS was swept back into power under Arce and Choquehuanca.

What Lies Ahead

The MAS’s major success in recent years lay in its capacity to adroitly navigate the deep divisions in Bolivian society. The urban traditional left, indigenous-peasant movements in rural areas, and the agro-industrial elite in the east were all, to varying degrees, accommodated under its auspices.

Bolivia does not have a history of stable political parties, and the MAS has provided the longest period of sustained economic growth and political stability in its history. But outside the party structures, Morales’s return is unlikely to be welcomed with open arms, certainly among Bolivia’s growing middle classes.

The next few weeks will be decisive for the party’s future. One outcome may be that efforts at unity from the party base pull the dividing factions into an uneasy détente. A cabildo (town hall) is set to take place later this month in which the party will attempt to resolve its fractures. Mario Seña, general secretary of the CSUTCB — which is more closely allied with Arce — issued a statement imploring Arce, Choquehuanca, and Morales to attend: “We hope they participate, we hope they see reality, we hope that they take off the blindfold and see the true thoughts of the Bolivian people.” Morales has so far ruled out attendance.

The deepening rift within the MAS bodes ill for the future of the left-indigenous movement in Bolivia. The next few months look strained for this Andean nation.