Tag Archives: Bolivia

What Worked for MAS That Didn’t Work for the SPLM?: Party structure and its effect on conflict

6 Jan

In their Foreign Affairs essay, Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed outline the reasons for South Sudan’s collapse into bloodshed.  As one of the primary reasons, they note the SPLM never functioned as a real political party.  At first it was an army, and post-independence, it was merely an imaginary organization of assorted political figures.   Reading this, my mind wandered back to the research I did in Bolivia on the political structure of MAS, the country’s governing party.  Like the SPLM, MAS never had aa institutionalized structure.  MAS was founded in the 90’s during a crisis of confidence in Bolivia’s electoral democracy.  The indigenous founders of MAS were wary of traditional politics; not only were they failing Bolivia then, but they had always failed the indigenous  majority.  However, indigenous leaders felt they needed to contend for power in the political arena, and MAS was founded as the coalition’s “political instrument”.  The idea of what a “political instrument” constituted was always vague, but its lack of structure effectively allowed current President Evo Morales to gradually concentrate power around himself and a few allies.

In South Sudan, the partial result of a lack of party structure has been civil war, but in Bolivia, its been largely responsible for creating one of Bolivia’s strongest ever governments.  Why?  I think there are three central advantages that Bolivia has had over South Sudan that explain this divergence: a lack of a history of violent conflict, a more favorable dispersion of political power, and government capacity to provide services.

South Sudan has been one of the world’s most consistently war-ravaged places for the past fifty years.   Not only has the South suffered from catastrophic conflict with the north, but much of the fighting during Sudan’s civil wars occurred between southern groups.  This, along with John Garang’s refusal to develop a permanent, professional SPLA, partially caused South Sudan to become a fractured, militia-ized country.  In South Sudan, there are also just more guns in the hands of more people than there are in Bolivia, meaning it is much easier to escalate a political disagreement to a violent conflict.  Unlike South Sudan, Bolivia has only a minor history of violence between indigenous peoples (who form MAS’ social base) and the white urban elite, and essentially no history of intra-indigenous violent conflict.

Probably the most crucial element in explaining Bolivia and South Sudan’s varying fates is the distribution of political power in each country.  Despite an indigenous majority, Bolivia’s white right had long been a potent political force in the country.  That is, until 2009.  That year, the right spectacularly imploded following a failed secession attempt in the wealthy and conservative Santa Cruz department.  This allowed Evo Morales to dispose of allies he had little in common with but were needed to maintain a majority over right-wing parties.  MAS was always quite centralized, it has never been more so than it is today.  It’s unlikely Evo could have been so successful in eating up power within MAS had it had formal institutions that checked his power.  And though Evo has marginalized large parts of his original coalition, he does have a trump card.  Any opposition indigenous bloc would be unable to seize power itself and would present an opportunity for the right to reemerge.  The right failed indigenous Bolivians so badly for so long that Evo has become the only game in town.  Though Evo’s hegemony is not necessarily positive for every indigenous group, it has created a stable political system.

Unlike in Bolivia, there is no single faction strong enough to unilaterally control the government.  The north has also faded as an adversary to unite against.  Perversely, oil revenue accounts for most of the country’s economy and is controlled entirely by the state.  When combined, the lack of a hegemonic power and the oil revenues form a strong incentive to seize the state.

The final advantage I think Bolivia has had over South Sudan is its capacity to deliver resources to its population and subsequently form a national identity.  Though MAS has not been as successful in transforming the lives of Bolivians as it claims to be, it has done a fairly good job.  Its economic policies have also stoked an economy that avoided the 2009 financial crisis and saw large growth rates.  Therefore, it has been able to deliver real benefits to large, previously neglected swaths of the country.  These successes have helped legitimate its use of indigenous-ness as a unifying national identity.  South Sudan hasn’t been so lucky.  South Sudan’s economy stops and starts as relations with the north vacillate, while Kiir has had to use more than half the national budget to pay off militias.  Even with billions in international assistance, Juba’s ability to actually provide services to its population (like paved roads) has been quite limited.  It’s easy to see then why ethnic patronage networks have proved more powerful in obtaining allegiance than the national government.

In both cases, the lack of a fixed party structure has allowed an opportunity to seize power.  In Bolivia, Evo took that chance and created a sort of hegemonic stability.  In South Sudan, however, the lack of political institutionalization provided numerous incentives for conflict and Machar capitalized.

The Roots of Indigenous Governance and Conflict in Bolivia

12 Jun

*This is the English blog post version of my research in Bolivia.  It originally appeared on Taylor Marvin’s blog, Smoke & Stir.

The MAS party (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement toward Socialism), which dominates Bolivia’s current government, originated in a mid-1990s confluence of indigenous organizations. In 2005 MAS won its first presidential election, with candidate Evo Morales elected to the presidency, and has been in power ever since. I started this project with the desire to understand how MAS managed to gain power and form one of the most stable governments in Bolivia’s history in the span of less than twenty years. Despite its position of relative strength MAS’ governing coalition remains fraught with conflicts and contradictions, so I also sought to contextualize these issues within the framework of movement governments produced when social movements win elections. My research found that historically divergent forms of indigenous political organization, combined with perceptions of electoral politics and the collapse of the Bolivian right, set the stage for conflicts within MAS. Finally, the comparative section of my paper highlights the importance of the transition period between a social movement and the government it produces.

Led by workers’ unions, the revolution of 1952 signaled the end of the old order in Bolivian politics and the beginning of the liberal nationalist era. Bolivia’s unions grew stronger in the post-revolutionary era, and the popularity of this model led to the formation of many indigenous peasant (campesino) unions that stressed the importance of individual land ownership. While some of these organizations were quite democratic, verticalism, personalism, and patronage were also common. This new type of indigenous organization conflicted with the older version, the ayllu, which was based around communal land led by community councils rather than a separate hierarchy. Significant diversity has always existed within these two forms of social mobilization, and many of the conflicts within MAS stem from these differing traditions.

Another major pre-election factor responsible for post-electoral conflict was the formation of MAS as a “political instrument”, rather than a political party. During the mid-1990s Bolivian society experienced a crisis of confidence in political parties and the political system, which provided an opportunity for an ambitious indigenous force, spurred on by repression from both the government and the DEA, to gain a political foothold. Bolivians’ distrust of political parties made it unwise — and from MAS founders’ perspective, counterproductive — to style their new coalition as a traditional political party. The political instrument MAS was an attempt to do away with the bureaucracy and verticalism associated with political parties. But its lack of a defined organizational structure meant that as the pressures of victory necessitated the formation of a bureaucracy and a division of labor, MAS’ most powerful coalition partners (who mostly came from the union tradition) took the lead. This ad hoc structure meant that institutional channels for weaker coalition partners to challenge the growing power of Evo Morales and his circle of advisors, the coca growers union, and to a lesser extent other union organizers, were unavailable. Despite concrete attempts by more powerful partners to consolidate power, much of the concentration of power around Evo Morales was the unintended consequences of political success. Today, the flows of political power within MAS are informal, and official titles matter less than the relationship between individual leaders and Evo. While various organizations still have the ability to strongly influence government policy, MAS and the Bolivian government are dominated by Evo and his small circle of middle-class non-indigenous advisors.

A portion of my project was a comparative section in which I used political theory and two movement government case studies — specifically, post-communist Poland and South Africa after Apartheid — to contextualize the Masista experience in Bolivia. My central conclusion was that the transition period is crucial in determining the type of government social movements ultimately produced. Firstly, elite-driven transitions that do little to incorporate the public are likely to produce centralized governments unable or unwilling to respond to the demands of the people. Secondly, the longer the period of transition, the more likely the chances are that a representative government will form. Longer transition periods provide the opposition with more time to organize and include the public, and government repression harms the possibility of this positive organization. Finally, if movements can clearly articulate their post-transition goals before the transition is actually made, there is a lower chance of subsequent intra-coalition conflict.

In these respects, Bolivia was quite lucky. Unlike in Poland and South Africa, the transition took the form of an election (in South Africa, I’m referring to the end of Apartheid rather than the 1994 elections) which allowed for popular participation. The transition period, defined as MAS’ rise between 1995-2005, was also quite long. While coca growers suffered severe repression, previous Bolivian governments made little attempt to repress MAS as an organization. Lastly, though many groups didn’t foresee getting screwed by MAS, there was a publicly-well understood to-do list when MAS was elected. While Bolivia under MAS is not the utopian movement government Vice President Garcia Linera claims it to be (the logic of social movements and governments is contradictory), it arguably has done better than South Africa and Poland in forming a representative democracy partially due to favorable transitional conditions.

The 2009 near-total collapse of Bolivia’s political opposition was the final factor that allowed for MAS’ consolidation of power. While this collapse mostly affected the right, other sectors also suffered. In-fighting, the failure of the Santa Cruz autonomy movement, the lack of a viable opposition leader, MAS’ popularity, and the new government’s political cunning all divided and severely weakened opposing parties. This collapse allowed MAS to further tighten its circle of support, and to dispense with coalition partners that it didn’t have much in common with anyway. The lack of any potential political challenger has put MAS in a position of relative strength for a Bolivian government.

A second cause for MAS’s near-hegemonic political position is the historical exclusion of indigenous people in the Bolivian political scene. While many indigenous people are frustrated with MAS’ policies, they realize that they are in the best position they’ve ever been in, the alternatives are worse, and working for change within the system is the best policy (MAS has opened up more institutional channels for indigenous social organization participation than any previous administration). An anecdote that best conveys this reality was relayed to me by a Bolivian sociologist, who in an interview quoted an older indigenous woman in El Alto: “Evo can screw up for 500 years and we will continue to support him.” Despite the frequent civil conflicts between MAS and indigenous organizations (a massive series of strikes and roadblocks ground the western half of Bolivia to a near halt a month ago), indigenous civil society mostly works in a way that does not directly challenge MAS’s claims to power, and MAS has become quite adept at knowing its own limits. It is difficult to forecast where a challenge strong enough to topple MAS will come from.

Many leftists academics, including some I interviewed, argue that despite MAS’ indigenous roots, its policies (for example, the marginalization of lowland indigenous groups) are anti-indigenous. However, this critique essentializes indigenous identity by assuming that (monolithic) indigenous people have a destiny fundamentally different from the rest of society. They are anti-modern, and in the case of Bolivia, inhabit rural spaces and practice more “traditional” forms of living. The reality is more complicated. Lowlanders’ loss of power under the MAS government stems from nationwide political dynamics and differing political history between lowlanders and highlanders; the latter form the base of MAS. Another issue many harp on as an example of Evo’s faulty indigenous credentials is his neoliberal and extractive economic policies. The first is the result of the needs of his base: the coca growers (Evo is a former coca grower himself) need a market to sell their product, and therefore neoliberalism, combined with limited government welfare, suits them nicely. The second is a result of pressure from indigenous groups who see environmental damage from mining and hydrocarbon extraction as less harmful than failing to exploit these resources. In and of itself, neoliberal economics policies are not incompatible with an indigenous identity. While some of MAS’ discourse does essentialize what it means to be indigenous for its own political gain, accusing it of being anti-indigenous is hardly valid.

Ultimately, MAS’ social movement origins, Bolivia’s indigenous political tradition, the 1990s political collapse, pressures of electoral victory, and the disintegration of the opposition are the five main factors that have brought MAS to where it is today. While its position at the top is remarkably stable, it will need to find a way to better incorporate indigenous social organizations in the future to retain its grip on power.

My final project from studying in Bolivia

9 Jun

I finally got around to putting my final project from Bolivia in a publicly accessible google doc (available here). It’s on the roots of the current MAS government in Bolivia in the context of indigenous political history and the effect of social movements on the governments they create. If you’re interested in Bolivian politics, or social movement politics in general, and speak Spanish, then you may well be interested. Otherwise, I’ll be coming out with a blog post soon in English that condenses my research on Taylor Marvin’s blog, Smoke & Stir.


A Comparitive Analysis of Citizen Security: Bolivia and the United States

18 Feb

*As I did in my previous two posts about my experiences this summer, I will continue to use the pseudonym Joplin to describe the city in order to protect the identity of the people I mention.

I arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia just over two weeks ago, and am enjoying getting myself acquainted with Bolivia.  Before departing, I read Rutgers anthropologist Daniel Goldstein’s book Outlawed, which looks at citizen security in Cochabamba southern neighborhoods.  These areas are made up of recent indigenous internal migrants.  This constant struggle to protect one’s family and possessions reminded me of my experiences working in Joplin last summer, a place where residents constantly fear for their safety because of gang violence.  Both Cochabamba and Joplin are places where race and class differences are strikingly obvious: Joplin has a murder rate almost twice Detroit’s, but is just two miles away from rich, white, leafy suburbs.  Cochabamba, and Bolivia as a whole, is incredibly unequal.  Recent indigenous migrants exist side-by-side with the city’s elite.  In both cities, citizens are forced to attempt to protect themselves without the prospect of significant state assistance, but continue to look toward the state for security.

The most striking similarity between Joplin and Cochabamba’s southern sections is the state’s inability or unwillingness to hold a monopoly on force.  While this is true on the surface, the state is not entirely absent in either case.  Instead, Goldstein uses the term “the phantom state” to describe that while the state doesn’t intervene directly, its laws and hypothetical presence shape the actions and expectations of residents.  If the state actually didn’t exist (as perhaps one could say about Mogadishu two years ago), residents would not have to think as hard about whether or not to take security into their own hands.  In Joplin at least, the state exists to a minimal degree, but residents still distrust the police to actually carry out their duties (for a city of between thirty and forty thousand, Joplin has only six officers on duty at a time).

Despite its constant negligence, it is still the state that residents appeal to for security.  In Cochabamba southern regions, residents are frustrated by laws that prevent police from holding criminals without sufficient evidence.  Many believe in a pact between the police and criminals where criminals, when caught, allow themselves to be taken in by the police, but are then released when they arrive at the station.  By the residents’ reckoning, it gives police officers something to do, it provides a steady stream of revenue to underpaid police officers, and it keeps criminals’ businesses alive.  In community meeting after community meeting in Joplin, I heard a desire for more police on the streets, more raids on suspected drug dens, and more powers to arrest suspected criminals.

The lack of a state to provide security for its citizens challenges our notion of what states are, and similarly, it problematizes human rights discourse.  For many residents of Cochabamba’s southern self-constructed neighborhoods, HR is a language spoken by foreigners that protects criminals rather than normal citizens.  While I never heard HR discourse directly challenged in Joplin, a disdain for suspects’ rights was commonplace.  In mainstream human rights discourse, there is a victim and a perpetrator, but when those lines are not clear cut, applying basic HR concepts becomes much more difficult.  In both Joplin and Bolivia, threats come from a mass of unorganized, faceless, and nameless young men.  Human rights discourse is supposed to protect such masses, but when they themselves are seen as the threat by a terrified populace, residents don’t want to listen to lectures on due process.  If human rights discourse is to succeed in places the like Joplin and Cochabamba, it needs to reinforce the right to receive security services from the state.

Lacking a state to protect them, how can citizens living in marginal spaces improve their communal security?  Organization, on three fronts, is crucial.  Firstly, residents must organize to press the state for the expansion of security services, and use their political power to punish officials that do not make the necessary changes.  Secondly, residents can establish neighborhood security organizations that promote greater cooperation and understanding among residents on efforts to improve citizen security.  Finally, neighborhoods must work across gender and age gaps to promote understanding.  Though in Joplin I repeatedly heard calls for expansive police powers, these statements were all coming from middle aged women.  Young men, for whatever reasons, were absent from the meetings, and had they been present, their demonization would have not provided a welcoming environment.  To tackle this problem, a series of workshops have been organized in Joplin that first talk about violence with separate groups of teenagers/twenty-somethings and middle aged residents, then bring them to together to continue the conversation.  Without a state to provide security, communities that are able to reach across internal divisions to promote a collective security effort will likely be safer.