Bolivians are divided in opinion, which will only complicate the painful path forward

Bolivia recently witnessed the dramatic end of Evo Morales’ presidency. From what I have been able to gather, I would guesstimate that roughly a fourth of Bolivians are convinced that Evo Morales was forced out of office by a coup d’etat. A larger percentage between a third and a half of Bolivians are convinced that Evo was forced to resign, because the MAS Party committed widespread election fraud.

I am struck by how passionately both sides believe that they were wronged. The MAS partisans believe that it was possible that the MAS improved its winning margin from 7% to 10% after the unofficial quick count stopped reporting results, because most of the late tallies were coming from rural areas which heavily favor the MAS. Many of the Masistas that I have talked to believe that it was just a few bad apples who committed election fraud, but not the result of a systematic campaign directed from the top of the party. MAS partisans are convinced that the Organization of American States is not a neutral party, and the US and its surrogates in Latin America have long conspired to overthrow Evo. If asked how they explain the finding of widespread election fraud by the OAS, they will say that the OAS took a few isolated incidents of fraud and projected that to have occurred everywhere in the country.

Moreover, they see the burning of the election evidence by the opposition and the refusal of the opposition to participate in a new election and the refusal of the opposition to take their seats in the House of Deputies and Senate as evidence that the opposition was not acting in good faith. They see the violence toward the families of MAS officials who continued to support Evo and the ransacking of Evo’s house in Cochabamba, plus the fact that the leadership of the military called on Evo to resign, as evidence that the opposition was conducting a coup d’etat.

The partisans in the opposition, however, point to all the evidence of election fraud documented by the OAS to conclude that the MAS was trying to steal the election. They believe that they had no choice but to refuse to participate in any new elections that would be overseen by the same corrupt election commission. They saw Evo’s call for new elections as a way to conduct another dirty election, and they asked why should Evo be allowed to stand for election again when he is a criminal who committed election fraud?

It has been clear to me that political opinion has been turning against the MAS for the last couple years, but the opposition was never able to formulate an agenda that appealed to most Bolivians, so it basically ran on opposition to Evo. Part of the reason why the MAS party stayed in power for 13 years was because the opposition in Bolivia has never been able to define a platform that appealed to lower-class Bolivians who are the majority, whereas the MAS could point to concrete things that it had done for lower-class Bolivians. The MAS also had a vision for the country that appealed to many, whereas the opposition was never very effective in offering a compelling counter-vision for the nation. Few Bolivians are inspired by the message offered by Carlos Mesa and he is also tainted by the neoliberal failures of the early 2000s. Few voted for him per se, as much as they were voting against Evo and the growing corruption of the MAS party.

Nonetheless, I fully expected the MAS to hang onto power, despite the continuing protests since the election. The turning point that shifted the balance of power was the OAS’s preliminary report that found evidence of widespread electoral fraud and the recommendation that new elections must be held. From that point, many of the groups that had backed the MAS, such as labor groups and the military, started calling for Evo’s resignation.

I personally felt torn through out this process, because I have friendships with people who both fervently support and oppose the MAS. My close friends who worked with me to found the ILLA-A heavily supported the MAS, but I also have people very dear to me who were marching with the opposition. Ideologically I am closer to the MAS than to the opposition, but I have become a critic of the MAS in recent years due to its development plans that are based on hydrocarbon extraction, mining and massive deforestation. My friends who are environmental activists generally detest Evo for accelerating the destruction of the Amazon.

On Sunday, a friend who works at the Bolivian Chancellery came over to visit and we watched Evo give his resignation speech together. Evo refused to admit any wrong-doing and claimed that he was only resigning to stop the violence against political leaders who refused to resign or renounce the MAS. I don’t think that my friend wanted to be alone at that moment. Many of the Masistas who I have met are feeling depressed and betrayed by their party, but some are lashing out in anger right now. Unfortunately, the police and the military don’t want to be seen as taking sides in this dispute, so nobody is controlling the destructive mobs in the streets.

After listening to Evo’s speech, I wandered the Prado in the center of La Paz as crowds of people turned out to celebrate in the street, chanting “¡Sí, se pudo!” (“Yes, we could!”). Under the Obelisco monument, there was a brass band and people were dancing and singing. For the people who had spent years grumbling under MAS Party rule, it was a cathartic release of pent-up emotion.

I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad about the resignation of Evo Morales and the end of MAS Party rule. One of Bolivia’s problems is the lack of stable political parties that help provide guidelines and traditions that restrain politicians, and make people more loyal to the party than to individual leaders. Evo destroyed himself and his party because he insisted that he must stay in power, and the MAS party was totally defined around him as leader. Now that Evo is gone, I doubt that the MAS party will survive as a political entity. All the potential leaders have already left the party or been discredited, so I don’t see anyone being able to take over the reins and lead the party out of its present crisis.

I do think that Bolivia needs strong leftist parties, because I can’t see the majority of Bolivians ever being very enthusiastic about a right-wing agenda. Now that the MAS is no longer occupying all the space on the left and sucking up all the political oxygen, maybe a new leftist party will arise which is more concerned about the environment and sustainable development, rather than state-owned corporations and a developmentalist ideology from the 1950s.

Whatever happens, the next couple years will be rough for the Bolivian people. The economy which has been artificially propped up through deficit spending is going to get much worse, and whoever wins the next election is not likely to have much of a mandate or an agenda. Bolivia will probably go back to its old practice of throwing presidents out of office before they complete their terms of office. Whatever one thinks of the MAS Party, it did provide the longest period of stability and economic growth that the country has ever enjoyed.

The problem as I see it is that Bolivia’s growth under the MAS was based on extractive industries and environmental destruction which cannot continue, so Bolivia will have to find a new model of development. I see possibilities for sustainable development, but I don’t think that the path forward will be easy. Two thirds of Bolivia’s exports, which come from natural gas, minerals and soybeans, are going to decline rapidly in the future, because the gas reserves are drying up, and the production of minerals and soybeans depends on diesel, which the state can’t continue subsidizing, so they will be less competitive on the world market. As the natural gas reserves disappear, Bolivia can’t continue burning gas to generate 81% of its electricity and it can’t keep subsidizing the importation of gasoline and diesel, but it doesn’t have the funds to invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency and electrified transport. One way or another Bolivians will have to learn to live with less exports and imports and an economy which is based on local production and consumption, but it won’t be easy to make the needed transition toward sustainability.

2 thoughts on “Bolivians are divided in opinion, which will only complicate the painful path forward

  1. Mark J. Kropf

    Bolivians show themselves every bit as polarized as those of the U.S and of the UK in regards to either Conservative matters (immigration, open electorate, Medical Care) or Brexit and the NHS respectively. Current times lead to extremely disparate views by equally-alienated groups. Those on one side truly have no capacity to either process the arguments of the opposing side nor any means to consider compromise.
    Perhaps other examples of the phenomenon make it more general yet. Bolivia has joined a modern paradox of countries functioning as internally-divided wholes.


    1. amosbatto Post author

      There is a serious divide between the professional classes/elites and working classes/indigenous. The MASistas who I saw marching on the streets of La Paz were definitely working class and indigenous. Most of the professional classes have abandoned Evo at this point, although I am meeting academics who still support him. Another major divide is between the lowlands and the highlands. Evo’s support is much stronger in the highlands, partly because a larger percentage are indigenous. There was the “half moon” movement for the lowlands to break away for the rest of the country in 2006 when Evo first came to power, but the MAS managed to stop the calls for autonomy, by basically giving the powerful in the lowlands what they wanted. They told the big soybean farmers and big cattle ranchers that they could deforest as much as they wanted and they would keep subsidizing their diesel fuel. They gave more of the funds from gas exports to Tarija and Santa Cruz, which is where the gas is located, so there was less reason for them to call for autonomy and independence. The opposition is definitely stronger in the lowlands, but the calls to break the country in half ended a decade ago.



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