The Roots of Indigenous Governance and Conflict

This is a guest post by Danny Hirschel-Burns. He studies at Swarthmore College and blogs at The Widening Lens.

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.

"Without Evo Bolivia will divide", screen at pro-MAS rally October 2011 (credit: Dario Kenner)

“Without Evo Bolivia will divide”, screen at pro-MAS rally October 2011 (credit: Dario Kenner)

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.

Bolivian Plurinational Assembly (credit: Dario Kenner)

Bolivian Plurinational Assembly (credit: Dario Kenner)

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.

Indigenous People march in Bolivia (credit: Dario Kenner)

Indigenous People march in Bolivia (credit: Dario Kenner)

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.

Danny Hirschel-Burns spent the last semester studying in Cochabamba, Bolivia. His month-long final project consisted of interviews with Bolivian academics and political figures, and this post condenses his findings. The full paper, in Spanish, is available here.

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