Making Sense of Bolivia’s Discontent

Yves here. The reporting on politics in Bolivia and the developments that led to the ouster of Evo Morales has generally been poor. This post argues that Boliva’s dependence on energy exports to support its redistribution policies put Morales in a tenuous position.

By Alke Jenss, a senior research fellow at Arnold-Bergstraesser Institute in Freiburg, Germany, and researches the intersection of critical political economy, state theory and urban (in-)security in Latin America. Originally published at openDemocracy

Symbols are essential to understanding the current turmoil in Bolivia. Since November 10th 2019, the Wiphala flag has been purged from official buildings. Police ripped it from their uniforms, where it had been emblazoned for the last 10 years. Self-declared interim president Jeanine Añez held a large bible when sworn in. Church representatives reportedly said “the Pachamama will never return to the (Government) Palace. Bolivia belongs to Christ.”

Timelines and institutional analysis show clearly that Evo Morales was ousted in a coup. The Organization of American States (OAS) suggested new elections due to “irregularities” in the elections of October 20th. By now, statistical analysis shows that even such irregularities may not have existed at all. Yet Morales announced new elections, following OAS recommendations. Despite this, the chief military general “asked” him to resign.

To explain the dispute of images, class, race, and gender relations are fundamental. When the Morales government took office in 2005, it represented a great desire for change. Poverty levels had reached 80 % in rural areas; conflicts raged about privatization of public goods (water) and extraction of natural resources (gas). That discontent led diverse indigenous and social movements to rally behind Morales’ candidacy, claiming neither the state’s institutional set-up nor its actual policies represented them.

The expressed aim of the Morales government’s “transformation process”, condensed in the path-breaking constitution of 2009, was to fundamentally transform the state. Symbolically, this became the Plurinational State of Bolivia. This is what the wiphala flag stands for: a recognition of the majority of people in Bolivia who self-identify as indigenous.

Changes after 2005 were dramatic. Redistribution policies massively reduced poverty from 63.9% (2004) to 32.7% (2013). Income inequality fell remarkably until 2011. Pensions were introduced even for informal sector workers; public spending on education and health soared; the constitution limited private property; agrarian reform commenced. Highly controversial investor-state dispute settlements were abandoned. A country which hadn’t allowed indigenous women to enter parliament now had its first female indigenous justice minister, Casimira Rodríguez.

Yet, this “transformation process” was not only truncated by the recent coup. Conflicts laid bare its structural contradictions, subject to long-existing asymmetrical integration into world economy. Social policies were made possible precisely by deepening extraction. It was the commodities super-cycle with high demand and oil and gas prices that enabled distribution, rather than redistribution. The nationalization of oil and gas extraction, while an economic success and supported by 92 % of society, remained partial; transnational corporations accepted higher taxes and joint ventures with state-owned firms.

Not only did this further the state’s dependence on exports, it prevented the diversification of the economy, the build-up of more value-added production industries and protection against volatile world market prices. Predictably, the fiscal deficit rose with falling oil prices. 76 % of Bolivia’s exports are minerals and rare metals, 15.9% agro-industrial products. Since 2015, the trade balance is negative – which it hadn’t been since 2005.

In 2010, Bolivia organized the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change, which elaborated far-reaching and agenda-setting declarations on climate change. Actual policies, however, contradicted the declared socio-ecological transformation.

The National Development Plan 2025 (NDP 25), published in 2015, declared Bolivia a regional ‘energy power’, based primarily on fossil fuels and large hydropower dams. Vicepresident García Linera declared:

“The twenty-first century for Bolivia is to produce oil, industrialise petrochemicals, industrialise minerals… We’re seeking out the areas where there’s more gas, where there’s water, sites for dams. Where there is water, it’s like pure gold falling from the sky.”

The plan further contradicted the buen-vivir agenda, potentials for an energy transition, and largely ignored the ecologically negative effects of large-scale hydropower projects. Renewables only make up 2 % of Bolivia’s energy production.

NDP 25 revived the conflict over state-planned roads through the TIPNIS national park. In 2011, indigenous groups, heavily disappointed by infrastructure plans they feared may destroy their territories, marched against the government. Morales put the road project on hold, but both CIDOB (Federation of Indigenous People of Bolivia) and CONAMAQ (National Council of Ayllus and Markas del Qullasuyu) withdrew their support. In 2015, NDP 2025 decrees revived the TIPNIS road, and oil and gas explorations in protected areas, conditioned on ecological mitigation. Many gas and oil concessions overlap with both national parks and indigenous communal land titles, like TIPNIS, exacerbating contradictions.

The consolidation of Morales’ political party, MAS, as a political project itself, within these contradictions, changed who could influence state policies. Ecological fractions within and initiatives outside MAS lost access to decision-making. MAS seemed to co-opt, channel and restrict political participation. Feminist groups long criticized MAS and Morales for downplaying the effects of their own patriarchal attitudes on Bolivian gender relations. Rates of gender-based violence are high in Bolivia; investment in gender policies is no priority.

Morales’ broad base slowly shrank. This reached a tipping point when on February 21, 2016, the government held a referendum to determine if Morales could run for a fourth term. A small majority of the electorate said no. The government resorted to legal mechanisms through parliament, and the constitutional court in 2018 declared that denying Morales’ candidacy would infringe his political rights. In response, criticism of deteriorating practices within MAS from diverse places within Bolivian society grew. The “transformation process” ceased to be their project.

However, the economic and cultural background of those sectors dominating the post-coup scenario is entirely different from those indigenous and environmental movements that criticize Morales for not being radically transformative.

Upper-class white supremacists from eastern provinces, deeply racist and sexist, seem to have formed an alliance with indigenous organizations based primarily in Potosí’s mining sector, which have long-standing conflicts with the MAS. Presidential candidate Carlos Mesa was side-lined; instead, a radicalized group formed around Luis Fernando Camacho. He leads the Santa Cruz Civic Committee and apparently gained police support by promising higher pensions.

Far-right senator Jeanine Añez from Beni declared herself president without necessary quorum. Audio files published by Costa Rican newspaper El Periódico suggest right-wing Brazilian executives may have been involved, who Camacho repeatedly met. The alliance with Marcos Pumari, leader of mining region Potosí’s Civic Committee, whose confrontations with MAS over royalties date back to the mining law (2013), enabled this white, homogenous group to claim diversity.

The Civic Committees are similar to chambers of commerce. Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s wealthiest region, produces around 70% of Bolivia’s food, hosts important gas extraction and hydropower projects and expanded agro-industries. Camacho’s family co-owns the business group Inversiones Nacional Vida with investments in gas, services and insurance companies.

Regional business elites from the very same wealthy eastern provinces, the so-called media luna, heavily opposed Morales’ policies since 2005. Fear of losing privileged access to resources, incipient land redistribution and indigenous communities’ growing strength were major factors for escalating these tensions into threats of secession in 2008. Camacho was vice president of the Organización Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC), an organization accused of acting as a violent militia during that conflict.

Negotiations between economic elites and the Morales government pacified the conflict for several years, but implied great concessions to these forces. The MAS opened up to agribusiness proposals. Policies allowing more land to be cleared for agro-industries, however, sharply slowed land reform and contributed to intensified deforestation and recent fires, which in turn horrified indigenous communities.

Now the rift is deeper than ever. The organization of lithium extraction, fundamental for a transition to electric cars, fuelled existing tensions. Protests led by Pumari and post-election pressure led Morales to cancel a deal between recently founded, state-owned Lithium corporation YLB (Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos) and mid-sized German energy systems company ACI Systems that included processing lithium within Bolivia. Morales had presented the first fully Bolivia-produced electric car in September. Yet the Potosí Civic Committee demanded bigger shares of royalties for its region.

The protests after October 20th were first dominated by middle class urban youth, but amplified to broader sectors who protested against Morales for a variety of the reasons outlined above. The conflation of indigenous protestors with MAS and of earlier protests against Morales with coup supporters is highly problematic.

The multiplicity of voices instead reveals a highly heterogeneous, politicized society. The Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia (FSTMB) pointed out Morales’ achievements yet asked him to resign to evade bloodshed. The indigenous peasant union (CSUTCB) demanded to not accept Morales’ resignation and that police operate within the law. Other indigenous groups heavily condemn Morales for never transforming the ‘development model’. They demand energy transition instead of large infrastructure projects, but also hold the Civic Committees around Camacho responsible for rampant fires in Santa Cruz. Feminist groups have condemned the coup, despite earlier criticism of Morales, and the extreme racist and violent attacks by coup supporters and military alike.

In El Alto, both MAS and other movements have mobilized against such attacks to an extent that police withdrew from this urban indigenous centre.

The violent crackdown on MAS supporters and any other mobilizations that condemn the coup is a sign that this heterogeneity is both strength and weakness: Those who marched against Morales in October may now well be subject to severe repression by an extremist right-wing government. Indigenous critique of Morales was never intended to result in a coup, but in democratic transition.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Ignacio

    What a complex picture! Probably, the biggest mistake that Morales commited is identified here: relying too much on export of energy products such as in Venezuela (although there to much higher extent) for his reforms. The geo-economic divide between the economically-dominant plains of Santa Cruz and the highlands was the other factor that required clever management. A third problem, the biggest in my opinion, is the failure to build a wider political platform, some kind of caudillismo that weakened the MAS to a point that allowed the coup to succeed. In this sense it serves as a political lesson to be learned. IMO, the solution for the MAS is to open itself to a wider set of political sensitivities with new leaders trying to integrate not only indigenous but mestizos and, above all increase its strength in the Santa Cruz region. Managing the grey zones in politics is a must.

    Morales was the leader and at the same time the weakness of the movement.

    Thank you for this post!

    1. cirsium

      Surely the mistakes start with failing to ensure that the highest ranking army, airforce and police officers were not graduates of the US institution which is notorious for training death squads, torturers and CIA proxies, followed by giving too much power to the Minister for the Presidency, Juan Ramon Quintana, and ending with allowing foreign-government-funded NGOs like CANVAS to operate.

      1. vidimi

        this cannot be overstated. latin american countries should just abolish their militaries because all they are ever used for is for overthrowing their own leftist governments.

    2. RBHoughton

      I agree with Cirsium but another risk was putting the eggs in one basket. Every country, like every business, risks all if there is a major customer outweighing the others. Nevertheless, my sympathies are with Morales. We all do our best and sometimes find ourselves forced down a path that we know can do us no good. I sincerely hope the majority of Bolivian people recognise where their best interests lay.

      Why is it all of South America has this uncertainty about good and bad?

    3. jef

      Yes, if only Evo had run a tighter ship then the evil empire would never have spent the last 10 years fomenting and staging a coupe. BS!

  2. Wandering Mind

    I agree that this post, unlike ideologically driven narratives about events in Bolivia, better captures the situation.

    To what the author said, however, I would add one other dimension, and that is corruption.

    Corruption is not new to Bolivia nor to much of Latin America and the Bolivian government under Morales, both at the national and regional level, had its share of corruption issues. Money which was supposed to be for indigenous projects and support, for example, was siphoned off into the pockets of a few or otherwise misspent.

    Currently there are stories in the Bolivian papers about MAS making payments to persons to participate in demonstrations against the Anez government. While it cannot possibly explain the large numbers of people in the streets in El Alto (IMO), there is nonetheless enough evidence to give such reports credibility.

    There are also reports of the Morales government requiring government employees to participate in pro-Morales demonstrations or be fired, and MAS party officials threatening persons in the pueblos surrounding the major cities to maintain roadblocks cutting off the cities or face “fines” or attacks on their homes.

    Again, given the large numbers of people involved in anti-Anez activities, it is unlikely that such threats and bribes are the only reason people are protesting, but there is credible evidence of some such pressure.

    But none of the above should take away from the main point of this post: that there are forces in Bolivia which have always virulently and violently opposed Evo Morales and what he stands for and who have used the legitimate grievances of various sectors of Bolivian society to impose their own, ultra-right vision of the country on everyone else.

    That ultra-right project is still in process and it remains to be seen how successful it will be.

  3. Seamus Padraig

    Not only did this further the state’s dependence on exports, it prevented the diversification of the economy, the build-up of more value-added production industries and protection against volatile world market prices. Predictably, the fiscal deficit rose with falling oil prices. 76 % of Bolivia’s exports are minerals and rare metals, 15.9% agro-industrial products. Since 2015, the trade balance is negative – which it hadn’t been since 2005.

    The time for such analysis was before the coup, not after. Lots of progressives out there are now running around comforting themselves with the thought that the real reason Morales was overthrown was that he hadn’t been the right kind of socialist, or he hadn’t been ‘green’ enough. But we all know the truth here: the minute he went up against The Empire, he was a marked man. This had nothing whatsoever to do with feminism or global warming. Nothing.

    Renewables only make up 2 % of Bolivia’s energy production.

    Well, it kinda makes sense that, if his goal were to maximize revenue for redistribution purposes, Morales would favor extracted resources, since you can’t export renewables for hard currency.

    … on February 21, 2016, the government held a referendum to determine if Morales could run for a fourth term. A small majority of the electorate said no. The government resorted to legal mechanisms through parliament, and the constitutional court in 2018 declared that denying Morales’ candidacy would infringe his political rights.

    Kinda reminds me of Brexit, just a bit. :-D

    Those who marched against Morales in October may now well be subject to severe repression by an extremist right-wing government. Indigenous critique of Morales was never intended to result in a coup, but in democratic transition.

    Shades of Maidan …

      1. Seamus Padraig

        Very interesting link. Thanks, Lee. I agree with much of what he says. I have long maintained that there’s a reason why Castro outlasted Lula.

        1. JohnnyGL

          Speaking of Brazil, I never get tired of dropping this Perry Anderson breakdown of Brazilian politics and society.

          Though it’s a couple years old, it’s still very relevant. However, with Lula’s recent release, there may yet be new chapters to write. The left isn’t dead, yet, and Bolsonaro has been very ineffective and his unpopularity is rising.

        2. xkeyscored

          Yes, thank you very much for that link, Lee. I very much agree with most of what he says, like ‘Too many left-wingers try to play by what they think the rules are. “We have a fair election every X years and the losers accept the result and don’t sabotage the winner (or start a coup).” Those aren’t the real rules. If the right is really losing, they will cheat and cheat massively. They will think nothing of running death squads, making a deal with the US to support guerrillas, and so on.’
          And his ideas for how Obama could have defeated the financial elite sound both desirable and feasible. ‘He declares all banks involved in the sub-prime fraud racket (all of the big ones and most of the small ones) conspiracies under RICO. He then says that all the individual executives’ money are proceeds from crime and confiscates it. (This is 100 percent legal under laws as they exist). He charges them, and they are forced to use public defenders. They are now powerless.’ (Not that he or I suggest Obama ever wanted to defeat them.)

      2. notabanktoadie

        The banking sector creates money. Money determines what people can and cannot do. This is the control mechanism for the economy in any state which runs on markets. You must control it. If you control it, you can use it to strangle your domestic enemies. If you do not, your enemies will use it to strangle you. from Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-wing Government

        Take note PTB, if you don’t deprivilege depository institutions, aka “the banks”, then don’t complain when YOU become their victims, i.e. live by it, die by it.

        Also, the Left is lame and/or corrupt if they can’t or won’t imagine a just banking model.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      …the minute he went up against The Empire, he was a marked man.

      Morales had to know this, right? He was very successful with his agenda for the first several years and you wonder if it went to his head. When he starts cutting deals with the multinationals 10 years in, albeit with the intention of distributing the wealth more evenly, maybe he started thinking “These Western oil interests really aren’t so bad”. He cozied up to business interests, thinking he was doing a good thing for his people by making them more wealthy, but forgot that the definition of wealth used by the multinationals isn’t the same as that used by his indigenous supporters. A few extra bills in your wallet doesn’t mean much if to get it you destroy the ecosystem you depend on.

      The 2016 referendum that he narrowly lost should have been a wake up call that he needed to change course, that his term as president was nearing an end and that he needed to build a bench if the movement was to continue. Instead by going to the Supreme court to overturn the will of the people, he gave those who had marked him 15 years ago the excuse they needed to take him out. He obviously saw what these same interests tried to do to Maduro and he allowed them to run pretty much the exact same playbook against him.

      I do hope that the MAS party is able to overcome this and take control of the country again but Morales’ big missteps have made that a lot more difficult.

      You dance with the one that brung you, and don’t let the devil cut in.

    2. JohnnyGL

      “Well, it kinda makes sense that, if his goal were to maximize revenue for redistribution purposes, Morales would favor extracted resources, since you can’t export renewables for hard currency.”

      Venezuela ran into this, too. The so-called ‘Dutch-Disease’ of commodity exports saps the life out of other, incipient non-extractive industries. It’s REALLY hard to transition away from commodity dependency. When the money’s pouring in during the early years, it’s easy to paper over differences and build consensus by doing a better job spreading out the bounty and delivering a round of improvements in people’s lives.

      Also, increasing extraction exacerbates opposition from indigenous groups, who resent land-grabbing and externalities like pollution.

      There’s a kind of contradiction between 1) delivering gains to general population and 2) removing oligarchs and foreign corps from power.

      The easiest way in the near-term to do 1) is to avoid doing 2) or even to deepen the interaction with oligarchs and foreign corp partners….let’s be honest, they are REALLY GOOD at extraction for profit.

      Similarly, if you are going to attack 2), you may have to deliver austerity and 1) gets sacrificed.

      I think it’s not only worth asking why the coup succeeded, but also why it has NOT succeeded in Venezuela.

      It may be that sanctions make coups MORE difficult, by reducing the gravy train.

      Also, there’s been more tactical savvy by the Maduro Government, along with blundering by the Guido forces.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        I made a similar point to yours about the opposition from indigenous groups in a comment that has been eaten by skynet.

        That tactical savvy by Maduro (and Chavez before him) included making sure the military top brass was loyal and compensating them well, something it sounds like Morales did not do.

  4. notabanktoadie

    … held a large bible when sworn in. Alke Jenss

    In like new condition since never read?

    As a child I was given a tiny Bible or at least I think it was a Bible because I don’t recall ever reading it. And why should I have done so when we were all drilled in the “Church” ‘s Baltimore Catechism which we could certainly trust since our denomination was the largest in the world and therefor MUST be the true one.

    Anyway, don’t be fooled by pious hypocrites (including Protestants) and read it yourself before making a rash judgement.

  5. nick

    When you mention (once) “Church representatives” be specific. What “Church” are being referred to and which representatives? If Clergy please identify them. There is already enough blood on the hands of every OAS member that supported this atrocity and they need to be called out but any “Church” that condones such actions and claims to be doing so in the name of any such faith, whatever it is, also needs to be publicly exposed.

    1. xkeyscored

      It might be better interpreted as “church representatives” (it is the start of a sentence, so church would be capitalised), which could mean members of the Catholic church. The Guardian article it links to doesn’t use the term, but notes a heavy use of Christian imagery and ideology, as well as a demonisation of indigenous religion.

      His replacement, Jeanine Añez Chávez, agreed. “I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rites,” the opposition senator tweeted in 2013, “the city is not for the Indians who should stay in the highlands or the Chaco!!!” After Evo’s departure, Chavez declared herself interim president while holding up a large bible, though she failed to get the required quorum in the senate to do so.
      Next to her stood Luis Fernando Camacho, a member of the Christian far-right. After Evo’s resignation, Camacho stormed the presidential palace, a flag in one hand and a bible in the other. “The bible is returning to the government palace,” a pastor said on a video while standing next to Camacho. “Pachamama will never return. Today Christ is returning to the Government Palace. Bolivia is for Christ.”

      1. ChrisPacific

        Interesting (especially since the Bolivian constitution specifies religious tolerance and separation of church and state, if Wikipedia can be believed). Demographically Bolivia is nearly all Roman Catholic, but the indigenous version (which seems to account for most of it) is a kind of patchwork hybrid of Catholic beliefs with local modifications. Morales seems to have been associated fairly closely with this version, hence the Pachamama reference. Clearly the Christian far-right doesn’t like it (“satanic indigenous rites”) and doesn’t appear to have much truck with freedom of religion either.

        I suspect a whole article could be written just on this aspect. It all sounds very much to me like an appeal for an old European style Church and state from the colonial era, in which the privileges of a minority elite are protected by government and the natives know their place.

  6. Lee

    Thank you for the elucidation.

    Indigenous critique of Morales was never intended to result in a coup, but in democratic transition.

    Somewhat similarly, many in the U.S. who are critical of Trump would prefer to see him removed through the electoral process rather than through a neocon driven coup in the form of impeachment, thus reducing the potential for civil unrest and acts of political violence in our own country.

  7. truly

    This piece feels like “accept a coup” propaganda to me. The writer informs us well about the complexities within Bolivia, but writes it in a way that suggests we should think those “contradicitions” make it ok that the coup happened. If you and your family were discussing what kind of vacation to take, say a week in Vegas or a week camping in the wilderness, and your neighbor came over and beat the snot out of one of you and threw you out of your own family, that would not be ok. It is not ok that one small faction of Bolivian society gets to rise up and overpower the rest.

    The fact that Bolvia could be as stable as it was and that Morales could be politically centrist to these contradictions suggest that their democratic processes were functioning rather decently. He was getting pressure from the right (extraction and non distributionists) and pressure from the left (feminists and environmentalists). This seems like a pretty good place for a leader to be, representing the middle fifty percent with 25% attacking you from the right and 25% from the left.

    And again here in the comments, statements pointing out what Morales did wrong can be interpreted as reasons why the coup should be accepted. But the WRONG THING TO DO is support or accept a coup.

    It might be possible to be doing nothing wrong at all and have it happen that somebody does something horribly wrong to you and the rest of humanity. Trying to look back and figure out why you deserved this mistreatment is a waste of time. The only people worth looking at their faults here are those that support and defend the coup. Intentionally or unintentionally.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I have to differ. Even accepting that this was a coup, which the author states clearly in the subhead in the original version, is a controversial position in the US, UK, and EU. I view this piece more as “why was there support for a coup despite the things Morales had accomplished [and the even if the elections weren’t clean, there’s not much basis for thinking he would have lost]

  8. Bill Carson

    If you have Netflix and you want more insight into the situation in Bolivia, I recommend a 2010 movie, “Even the Rain.” From IMDb, “As a director and his crew shoot a controversial film about Christopher Columbus in Cochabamba, Bolivia, local people rise up against plans to privatize the water supply.“
    Even the Rain

Comments are closed.