On Bolivia: Four Provocations for the International Left

Relatives mourn by the coffins of supporters of Bolivian ex-President Evo Morales killed during clashes with the police in Sacaba, Cochabamba, Bolivia, on November 16, 2019. (Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

On Bolivia: Four Provocations for the International Left

The fall of the last surviving leader of the "pink tide" is a true moment of reckoning for progressives worldwide.

After President Evo Morales' resignation on Sunday, November 10, violence has been spreading around Bolivia. Following the "shock doctrine" formula, the neoliberal, racist and revanchist Right is quickly taking advantage of the political chaos. Bolivia urgently needs international solidarity to protect basic human rights. However, we must also challenge the simplistic myths spread by many people on the international Left, which deny any of Evo Morales' responsibility for the crisis. In the following, I share four observations about Bolivia that I believe are important for us all.

1) It's not as simple as just being a "coup"

As we're speaking, right-wing elites, religious fundamentalists and foreign imperialistic forces are seizing power in Bolivia. On Tuesday, November 12, before right-wing senator Jeanine Anez proclaimed herself as the state's president, she entered the government building carrying a bible, screaming, "Now, the bible returns to the presidential palace!" Directly following Morales' resignation, other right-wing leaders had intruded the same building on Sunday, tearing down the Indigenous wiphala flag, claiming: "Pachamama will never return to the palace. Bolivia belongs to Christ!" In 2013, Anez herself had tweeted, "I dream of a Bolivia without satanic Indigenous rituals. The cities aren't for the Indios, they should go to the high plains!"

After Morales' resignation on Sunday, both right-wing squads and Morales supporters have looted and vandalized. Police and military have repressed marches of mostly Indigenous people protesting the right-wing takeover, some of them in brutal ways. On Friday, police opened fire at a march in Sacaba near Cochabamba, killing five and injuring dozens.

On the other hand, Morales is not as innocent as many on the Left try to portray him. His stubborn attachment to power, increasingly autocratic tendencies and arrogance towards criticism, displayed over the past years, intensified a climate of polarization which right-wing forces could now readily exploit. His unwillingness to respect the results of the referendum on February 21 2018--in which a majority of Bolivians rejected his request to run for a fourth presidential term--pushed the country into crisis. Morales' former UN ambassador Pablo Solon writes, "Evo Morales could have finished his third electoral mandate on January 22 2020 as a very popular president and the possibility of running for--and even winning--the 2024 elections, if he had not forced through his re-election for a fourth term."

The mass protests engulfing the entire country following the October 20 election have been a broad popular movement, driven mainly by young people in the cities, rising in anger against the arrogance and growing autocratic tendencies of the Morales administration. Far from being ideologically coherent, this popular resistance has been an eruption of different types of anger that were hiding under the surface of society: To some extent, the class hatred and racist revanchism of the traditional white elites, but to a larger extent the general anger of disappointed hope.

When Morales got into power in 2005, he was a historic icon of hope for the majority of marginalized and Indigenous Bolivians that have been brutally oppressed since the times of Spanish colonization. His "process of change" started out as an auspicious world-leading project of progressive societal transformation, but got stuck in internal contradictions, gradual adaptation to capitalist economics, corruption and abuse of power.

Morales' condemnation of the entire post-election protest movement as a reactionary, right-wing coup, acting on behalf of US imperialism, and his calls for violence against protesters (which some of his followers acted on) further worsened an already heated climate of societal division. This polarizing discourse actually provided the misogynist, racist, religiously fundamentalist right--increasingly embodied by Luis Fernando Camacho--with the necessary ammunition of hatred to instrumentalize and use this movement for their own ends. When you go down the path of hatred, the most hateful will always win.

For years, Morales had discredited much of the criticism and resistance against his policies--many times coming from progressive parts of society, like the Indigenous resistance against the TIPNIS highway crossing into Brazil through pristine rainforest--as reactionary, right-wing sabotage of his allegedly progressive, anti-imperialist government. Thereby, he gradually alienated and immobilized the progressive social movements that once were his base of power--the very groups that could now stand up united against this horrific right-wing takeover.

2) Morales championed "Mother Earth" rhetoric abroad while pushing extractivism at home

Despite all legitimate criticism, Morales continues to enjoy popular support, as his achievements have been remarkable. In his 14 years in power, he radically improved the lives of millions of Bolivia's poor and Indigenous people. During his government, poverty rates came down from 59.9% in 2006 to 34.6% in 2018 and extreme poverty rates fell from 37.7% to 15.2% in the same time. Indigenous people regained political participation and autonomy after 500 years of oppression. Natural resources were renationalized and revenues spent on social, educational and health programs for the benefit of the people--not just a small wealthy elite.

At the same time, his government was unable to overcome fundamental contradictions. While becoming internationally known for his radical anti-capitalist rhetoric and for promoting the "rights of Mother Earth," Morales not only operated within a capitalist framework, he actually boosted GDP-focused development to finance social programs. He opened up Bolivia for a large expansion of new mining projects and hydroelectric dams and allowed the Amazon rainforest to be burned and slashed for the expansion of soy fields and cattle pastures. As the world exploded in indignation over the Amazon fires in Bolsonaro's Brazil this summer, hardly anyone recognized that the same ecocide was committed in Bolivia too--under the reins of an Indigenous president.

When authentic hope for radical transformation is disappointed, indifference, disbelief, frustration and anger ensue--and this is the breeding ground for totalitarianism.

3) The uncritical solidarity of the international Left is of no use to the people of Bolivia

The way in which many of the international Left glorify Morales and ignore his government's contradictions reflects a dangerous unwillingness to learn from mistakes made in actually building a socialist society.

By repeating the simplistic narratives of Morales and his party, portraying themselves as the heroic innocent victims of imperialist and right-wing aggression, many on the international Left not only perpetuate a dreadful polarization, but maintain a deceptive myth: that any truly emancipatory government or movement will sooner or later be destroyed by the overpowering system of globalized capitalism. But the truth is, Morales' demise was also the result of the contradictions in his own government, his conflicts with his own progressive base and ultimately, the inability to live up to his radical promise for system change.

4) Moving beyond the projection on governments, we must ask ourselves: How can system change actually come about?

The fall of the last surviving leader of the "pink tide" is a true moment of reckoning for the international Left.

For the countless millions they mobilized, it is sobering that none of these progressive governments has actually been able to leave the system of extractive capitalism behind. However, I believe Morales didn't fail because of lacking intention, ambition and intelligence, because of bad character--but because he couldn't. It turned out to be an impossible path; his hands were tied.

I think it's time to move beyond the obsession with single political leaders (whether positive or negative) which is driving much of the divisive polarization of our time. Both their glorification and condemnation is distracting us from the real question we need to ask: How can systemic change actually succeed? We have to answer this question if we want to still prevent the fascist takeover at the end of late-stage capitalism, which threatens to turn the energy of global rebellion into a dystopian force.

This entire system of dominance and nation-states is constructed in a way that it adapts you to its principles the higher you rise and the longer you stay in it, tending to corrupt those rising to more powerful positions to follow patriarchal patterns of top-down leadership.

At this crucial time of social and ecological disintegration, we do need progressive governments. But we must no longer pretend that they could get anywhere left to their own devices, surrounded by a system hostile to their intentions. We need strong alliances between progressive governments, social movements and grassroots projects building the infrastructure for the inevitable transition to a regenerative post-capitalist world. If those three act in concert and sustain relations of mutual support and critical solidarity, they together can become a powerful motor of change.

Regaining autonomy is key to system change. We need grassroots projects establishing alternative social, ecological and economic structures from the bottom up, which restore power to decentralized communities. This is, in large part, a path of reversing the damage and trauma inflicted by colonization and modern-day capitalism; in other words, of learning from the Indigenous wisdom of Earth-based cultures that have never broken their relationship with the Earth and the community of all Life.

To break out of the exploitative logic of capitalism, communities and regions will need to tap into the regenerative logic of nature, establishing ways of cooperating with the principles of living systems. By restoring ecosystems and water cycles and using the abundant energy of the sun, local communities and regional networks can make water, energy and food freely available to all its members.

By building social structures of trust and mutual support, by opposing globalized pseudo-culture with the creativity of authentic cultural expression, by reviving ancient tribal traditions, communities can restore their natural function to be the fundamental building blocks of social life.

As long as we don't address patriarchal structures and abusive power relations between the sexes, both politically and in our interpersonal relationships, the fundamental structures of domination will continue to perpetuate themselves on the political stage and violence will continue to be the way of resolving conflict. Many Indigenous cultures have honored the balance of masculine and feminine powers as essential to maintaining the healthy balance of human community. To leave the system of domination behind, we cannot escape addressing the psychological, social and spiritual structures, which make domination, exploitation and violence so appealing to people, independent of their political ideology.

The long-term success of any progressive movement relies on transforming the fundamental structures of society, from power over to power with, from centralization to autonomy, from domination to cooperation, from patriarchy to partnership. If that is ignored, they run at risk of suffering the same destiny as the "process of change" in Bolivia. Yet if that is embraced and such cooperation between governments, social movements and grassroots projects does indeed succeed, the "divide and conquer" strategies of imperialistic powers can no longer stop the social revolution.

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