Buses charged through downtown La Paz, Bolivia, honking horns and belching exhaust, as street vendors hawked ice cream and cell phones. I walked past corner stores selling mining equipment, and climbed the steps to the central offices of the Bartolina Sisa indigenous and women farmers’ organization, a close ally of President Evo Morales, who is expected to be re-elected to a third term on October 12th.
“Our challenge as an organization is to continue moving forward, continue protecting this process of change which has cost so many men, women, young people and even children so much,” Anselma Perlacios Peralta, the organization’s current Secretary of the Defense of the Coca Leaf, told me last April. We were sitting on sofas beneath framed portraits of Evo Morales and Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar.
The process of change, or proceso de cambio, is the phrase typically used to describe the far-reaching political project of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), a party which grew out of social movements; Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, is himself a former union leader and coca farmer. The costs, for Perlacios, are a reference to the many struggles against neoliberal policies and imperialism that led to the MAS election for the first time, in 2005. “We have been a fundamental part of this process, and as an organization we have to continue pushing, we have to continue advancing,” she explained.
Along with the Bartolina Sisa organization, the MAS enjoys crucial support from the Bolivian Workers’ Center, the Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia, and other major sectors of civil society and workers organizations. Perlacios’ comment underlines the commitment among MAS allies to bolster the momentum and support of the government in its projects, protecting and advancing Morales’ vision from the streets, union meetings, strikes and road blockades.
Morales is almost certainly going to win the election – he is currently polling with 59% support, 47 points ahead of his closest opponent, Doria Medina, a right wing politician who is one among many of the fractured opposition candidates running against Morales. The president’s likely victory at the polls, along with many other MAS politicians running for office on October 12th, is in part a result of popular economic and social policies which have lifted people out of poverty and empowered marginalized sectors of society.
But the votes for the MAS don’t articulate the serious divisions among various leftist social movements regarding the government, the negative environmental impacts of the MAS’s extractivist industries, or what kind of grassroots autonomy has been lost through the MAS’s channeling of people’s power. From the streets to the government palace, the looming elections have put the successes and shortcomings of the proceso de cambio into focus.
Why Morales Will Likely Win
It’s easy to see why Morales will likely be re-elected; many Bolivians have benefited from his time in office. Thanks to government efforts, a recent report from the UN noted that Bolivia has the highest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America, with a 32.2% drop from 2000 to 2012. The GDP has grown steadily from 2009-2013, and employment rates and wages have also gone up, with a notable 20% minimum wage raise last year.
The Morales administration’s nationalization of various sectors in the hydrocarbon and telecommunications industry, among others, have led to an enormous rise in government funds, allowing for expanded state-initiatives in infrastructure and social programs supporting elderly people living in poverty as well as school children and pregnant mothers. Thanks in part to a literacy program introduced by Cuba called “Yes I Can,” Bolivia has become free of illiteracy, according to UNESCO.
The MAS coca policy, now underway with the notable absence of US agencies, has also been a success, with the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime reporting that Bolivia is doing a fantastic job controlling coca production (the leaf is used legally for medicinal and cultural purposes in the country) and curtailing the manufacturing of cocaine, all without the violent militarization of coca-producing regions that historically was the norm.
Major development projects have been initiated during Morales’ time in office, including most recently the country’s first wind farm, the launching of its first telecommunications satellite and continued improvement of Bolivia’s road infrastructure – only ten percent of the country’s roads are paved.
Such policies have led to economic stability and a balanced budget; the MAS government has saved an enormous reserve of money in its state coffers, a huge break from the recent past when previous governments were typically crippled by debt. “We are showing the entire world that you can have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium,” Economy and Finance Minister Luis Arce told the New York Times in February. “Everything we are going to do is directed at benefiting the poor.”
Dark Sides of Development
However, there are dark sides to this progress. Morales is internationally known as a defender of Mother Earth, but in Bolivia, his government has continued to amplify the extractivist focus of the country’s economy in areas of oil, gas and mining industries, albeit with a stronger role for the state rather than foreign corporations. “It is one thing to plunder the natural resources of a country for the benefit of another one. It is another thing to use those natural resources for the benefit of the people,” Morales explained to an interviewer in 2010.
While MAS politicians applaud this extractivist approach as a popular route to overcoming poverty and the structural burdens left by decades of neoliberalism, the environment and various indigenous and rural communities are paying a price. Nationalized sectors of extractivist industries are producing funds for the government’s popular programs, yet mining is poisoning rivers across the country. The Morales government is moving forward with plans to industrialize and export the country’s sought-after lithium deposits, yet a recent investigation by Bolivia’s Center for Labor and Agricultural Development Studies reported that the current lithium extraction plan will produce 1.5 million tons of toxic waste per year, resulting in “mountain ranges” of waste.
A new Mining Law passed by the MAS-controlled congress in late March of this year criminalizes protest against mining operations, and gives the mining industry the right to use public water for its water-intensive and toxic operations, while disregarding the rights of rural and farming communities to that same water. And in recent years, MAS plans to build a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park have sparked controversy, particularly when government violence against pro-TIPNIS activists in 2011 left 70 wounded.
Social and indigenous movement critics of this extractivist approach have faced repression and a divide-and-conquer strategy on the part of the MAS government. As Julieta Ojeda of the Bolivian feminist group Mujeres Creando told me in 2012, “[Evo’s MAS] has penetrated certain organizations and divided them. They enter these social movement spaces and create divisions by forming their own parallel organizations.” As a result, some of the most vocal critics of extractivism and controversial development projects on the grassroots left have been marginalized and silenced.
A MAS victory at the polls doesn’t speak of many such contested terrains of politics in the country which will continue to shape government policy and public consciousness long after the election. For example, a movement for women’s rights arose during this election season in the face of sexist comments from leading candidates and an ongoing wave of violence against women in the country. And some members of Bolivia's largest campesino organization have threatened to cast votes against the MAS in protest of the party’s imposition of candidates without sufficient input from the grassroots.
Major social movements, such as the Bartolina Sisa Confederation and the Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia, generally celebrate their relationship with the MAS and its expected victory on October 12th. Yet various protagonists in the country’s historic protest movements of the 2000s against neoliberalism, water privatization and government repression feel as though the transformative vision, autonomy, solidarity of those earlier street mobilizations has been swept up into the MAS machine and subordinated to its party’s hegemony, one movement leader at a time.
“The MAS isn’t co-opting the social movements, but rather the movement’s leaders. They’re demobilizing the people,” renowned Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui told me in La Paz. “When they have the people wait on directives of the state, they essentially put them into the service of the state.”
Overall, it is the success of Morales’ party in bringing about positive change, as well as its ability to co-opt certain social movements and further controversial but lucrative extractivist industries, that will lead to electoral victory. This victory at the polls is likely in spite of these contradictions and tensions, but also because of them.