Bolivian journalist Oliver Vargas takes an in-depth look at the candidates taking on the interim right-wing government of Jeanine Anez in Bolivia’s upcoming elections and the many challenges they face.
by Oliver Vargas – January 29th, 2020
Bolivia’s presidential elections are scheduled to take place on May 3, 2020. The elections will be organized by the ‘transitional’ government of Jeanine Anez who seized power in a U.S.-backed military coup on November 10, 2019. The coup forced out the democratically elected leftist-indigenous government of Evo Morales, who presided over an economic boom following a rejection of IMF-imposed neoliberal measures.
The elections that brought Anez to power were announced after a ‘pacification’ of the country that saw two massacres of indigenous protesters who rose up by the hundreds of thousands calling for the return of Morales. The U.S. embassy hailed the “transitional’ period” as a “courageous defense of democracy” and praised the “commitment” of the Anez administration to free and fair elections.
The technical organization of the elections will be carried out in conjunction with USAID and the Organization of American States (OAS). The election run-up has already been marked by persecution and threats against the most prominent figures of Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party.
Nevertheless, the MAS is keen to go ahead with the elections and polls show that they still wield considerable influence in the country. The MAS has also selected candidates, choosing Luis Arce Catacora and David Choquehuanca to run for president and vice president respectively. Catacora served as Morales’ economy minister while Choquehuanca was his longest-serving foreign minister. The two were initially selected on January 19 by a commission of social movement and party leaders who traveled to Buenos Aires; they were then approved on the following Thursday by the Pacto de Unidad (MAS-affiliated social movements).
Catacora and Choquehuanca are likely to face an array of right-wing candidates, almost all of whom have deep and direct ties to Washington that long pre-date the November coup that forced Morales to flee the country. They range from centrist neoliberals to far-right authoritarians. The U.S. State Department is flexible in who it works with.
This article is the first installment of a two part series covering the coming election. This article will focus on the MAS candidates, look at their politics and track record in government, and will judge the strength of Morales’ party in this new climate of persecution against them. The second installment will explore the pro-coup candidates and their ties to Washington.
The MAS, as an organization, certainly isn’t a party with orthodox structures and organization. It grew out of debates within the indigenous Campesino movement about the need for a ‘political instrument’ to represent the country’s indigenous majority, and in particular, organized rural Campesinos who had never had the opportunity to participate in mainstream politics long dominated by a tiny white urban elite.
By the time the MAS was fully formed, it had grown to become a coalition of the most important organized indigenous movements in alliance with a collection of middle class, urban Marxist intellectuals who had broken with dogmatic thinking that looked down on the indigenous/Campesino movement.
Choquehuanca and Catacora come precisely from those two currents, respectively. The two ideological currents are born from entirely distinct cultures and experiences but nevertheless have managed to coexist within the party for 20 years, with varying levels of tension.
“Indigenism and Economic Stability”
The newspaper Pagina Siete labeled the duo as representing “Indigenism and Economic Stability” as they struggled to find a basis with which to smear two of Morales’ most popular former ministers. Catacora had served as Morales’ economy minister throughout the entire “process of change.” He is seen as the brains behind Bolivia’s economic miracle that followed the nationalization of natural resources and strategic industries. Fake charges were drawn up against him by the Anez administration less than 24 hours after he was announced as a candidate.
Catacora was born and raised in urban La Paz, studying economics at the highest levels. He went on to earn a Master’s degree from Warwick University in the UK, a Ph.D. in Bolivia and a job at the Central Bank. Yet Catacora really earned is stripes during the years of social struggle in the early 2000s when Evo Morales was a union leader. During those years he ran a Marxist study circle in La Paz called Los Duendes made up of former members of Marcelo Quiroga’s Socialist Party. Los Duendes was part of a web of new radical intellectual circles grappling with what the future of the left would be following the collapse of the Soviet Union and what a transition to socialism would look like in the new age of globalization.
In a 2015 interview, he recalled the kind of discussions they had:
In the 90s the privatizations began. The book ‘The End of History’ by Francis Fukuyama came out, where capitalism was said to be the last stage. In Los Duendes, we argued that this was impossible, we set out to present what comes after neoliberalism. This research would later be reflected in the plans of the MAS…we had to work on proposing an economic model that we could later implement.”
There were a number of such groups, the most prominent being former Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera’s Comuna group. Commenting on his relationship with Linera’s group, Catacora said:
In a meeting of the Duende group with Álvaro García Linera, we agreed on several positions and realized that we spoke the same language; pursued the same objective but using different instruments and tools. Comuna observed the sociological-political process in great depth, while Duende worked on the transition to socialism from the point of view of the construction of a new economic model.”
His role in this milieu of heterodox Marxist intellectuals is how Catacora earned him his place in the Movement Towards Socialism. He and Alvaro Garcia are representatives of this scene par excellence, but it’s also the reason there’s been some disquiet among some sections of the indigenous movements. Some see this layer as a privileged group, the invitados who are bequeathed with candidacies to high office, despite not rising through the ranks of the indigenous and workers’ movements. It’s a complaint I’ve heard repeatedly at internal party and union meetings across the country, even in Morales’ ultra-loyal base in the Chapare region.
Though this creative tension has always existed, in his speech proclaiming Catacora as candidate, Morales repeated his understanding of the movement as an alliance of indigenous groups and the blancos sanos (the good whites).
David Choquehuanca, the vice presidential candidate, was Morales’ first and longest-serving foreign minister and the second longest-serving minister after Catacora in a cabinet that was otherwise changing every season.
Choquehuanca is himself indigenous (Aymara) and is overwhelmingly favored by indigenous movements across the country. I was in Huanuni (Oruro) at a meeting of Pacto de Unidad when one member after another nominated him for president. In fact, some are now upset that he’s been selected for the lesser role of vice president. Choquehuanca is the MAS’ primary theorist of its indigenous wing. As foreign minister, he convened conferences across Latin America to expound the concept of Sumaq Qamaña (living well). Sumaq Qamaña is a philosophy based on indigenous principles of reciprocity, collectiveness, balance with mother nature (Pachamama), decolonization, recuperation of indigenous music, art, dance and forms of living, not as a ‘folkloric’ or ‘ethnic’ part of Bolivian culture but as the central basis of national identity.
Choquehuanca summed it up as:
To live well (Sumaq Qamaña) is to look for the experience in community, where all members care for all. The most important thing is not the human (prioritized by socialism) nor money (prioritized by capitalism), but life. It is intended to seek a simpler life. Become the path of harmony between nature and life”
Choquehuanca’s resume would suggest a life on the traditional Marxist left. Fe received a scholarship to study at a political cadre school in Cuba and after leaving the foreign ministry he became secretary of ALBA, the principal international organization of the Latin American left. Nevertheless, his championing of indigenous philosophy and proximity to Campesino movements rather than the urban left have won him a solid base of support, particularly in the Andean departments of Bolivia.
He received crucial backing in the indigenous city of El Alto, where in mid-December he was proclaimed the chosen candidate at a meeting of MAS-aligned movements in the city. The mood among attendees was hopeful, but also determined to have Choquehuanca, and no one else, as candidate. The chair of the meeting didn’t mince words:
He’s a man who looks for unity, for the Sumaq Qamana, that’s why we’ve attached ourselves to him as an indigenous leader, as a leader for the unity of the whole country, we respect the decision of the rank and file (to back Choquehuanca), we’re not going to allow impositions”.
When it was announced that Choquehuanca was chosen to run as vice president, those same movements were enraged. Choquehuanca himself came out to calm fears, praising Catacora and pointing out that; “the right want to divide us, and they’ll have a party if we let ourselves be divided.”
Whatever concerns there are about the pair, it’s undeniable that they, better than anyone, represent the two ideological currents that made the MAS into what it is today.
Catacora and Choquehuanca steered the two most important policy transformations of their period in government.
Bolivia’s foreign policy has seen the most dramatic change since the coup. In just a couple of months, the Anez administration has re-established full diplomatic relations with the United States and Israel, withdrew from ALBA, recognized the self-declared Juan Guaido as ‘president’ of Venezuela, cut ties with Cuba and rolled out the red carpet for USAID.
It was Choquehuanca’s work building an anti-imperialist foreign policy that was undone with the most haste. It was under his leadership at the foreign ministry that the U.S. ambassador was expelled, U.S. military bases were closed and Bolivia restricted Israeli visas in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Choquehuanca also oversaw Bolivia’s policy of solidarity with Venezuela, Cuba and other progressive countries when they were under attack by the United States. These issues are likely to surface prominently in the coming election.
The Economic Miracle
As crucial as foreign policy has been for the regime, the Bolivian economic model, brainchild of Catacora, is the centerpiece of the MAS electoral campaign. The early phase of the model can be summarized as the nationalization of strategic industries, the profits from which provide the Bolivian state the resources to invest in previously non-existent infrastructure and social spending. This stimulates internal demand and feeds the growth of the private sector, in particular, the tertiary sector.
The next phase, which Bolivia had only just begun to embark on before the coup, was the industrialization of natural resources. The aim was to surpass the country’s former position in the global south, condemned to live off the export of cheap raw materials.
European social democratic parties, such as the UK Labour party, often limit nationalization plans to industries they consider to be vital public services like health, transportation and utilities. In Bolivia, nationalization reached the upper echelons of the economy, and in early years included natural resources (natural gas, some mining, lithium), telecomms (Entel), airports, transport (BOA the national airline, Teleferico) and manufacturing, including numerous state-owned factories in a variety of industries from cement to paper.
This meant that profits stayed in the country and allowed the government to cover its costs and embark on ambitious social spending, rural development and infrastructure projects like building highways in areas of the country that had only ever known seclusion and dirt roads. This, in turn, stimulated the private sector. The movement of goods along with higher living standards meant that the number of registered businesses grew by 500 percent by the end of Morales’ second term.
In the years prior to the MAS’ economic reforms, Bolivia could only generate enough cash to cover basic costs and debts by printing money, resulting in an annual inflation rate of over 27,000 percent by 1985. Though the hyperinflationary era was overcome, the neoliberal shock therapy that was used to overcome it left the government as little more than an estado mendigo (beggar state), a term Morales often used to describe the period of dependency on western financial institutions and aid.
Western NGOs flourished in Bolivia as attempts to deal with the humanitarian crisis were farmed out to them. By 2005, the year before Morales was first elected, outgoing neoliberal president Carlos Mesa’s resignation speech turned into a bizarre tirade as he explained the extent to which the Bolivian economy was no longer able to pay for even the most basic functions of the state. Mesa explained how even public sector salaries were only being paid at all thanks to the “charity” that he had “begged for” at the IMF and other western institutions.
In addressing the economic failures of the neoliberal period, the results are undeniable. The economy today is over three times the size it was in 2005. The purchasing power of minimum wage workers has skyrocketed as rapid wage growth has been combined with low inflation.
The rate of general poverty that once stood at over 60 percent in 2005 dropped to around 34 percent by 2018. In 2005, 35 percent of Bolivians belonged to the middle class, now over 60 percent do. That’s around three million people in a country of 11 million. Cities like El Alto are no longer centers of appalling poverty and underdevelopment but are engines of growth for the whole country. Indeed, El Alto has been host to a particular kind of growth that has meant some of its newly wealthy indigenous residents have produced a new modern and luxury evolution of Andean culture, rather than turning to western chain stores and Miami holidays, like other Latin Americans who have dollars to spare.
The interior and exterior of the ‘cholets’ mansions owned by indigenous residents of El Alto incorporate Andean colors and designs into their property in flagrant defiance of western architectural norms.
The next phase of the economic model was industrialization, a path that was just beginning to be realized before it was interrupted by the coup. The idea is simple and was already yielding results. Not content with merely redistributing the profits of exporting raw materials, the Bolivian government was preparing the industrialization of those natural resources, meaning that rather than exporting crude gas or lithium in its natural state, the government would invest in building the industrial capacity to process those materials in Bolivia and sell value-added finished products.
This was already taking place with Bolivia’s vast lithium reserves. The country was producing its first domestically manufactured cars that included batteries made with lithium. When Evo first came to power, Bolivia exported natural gas but imported refined gas used for cooking and heating. Now, however, Bolivia is a net exporter of refined gas. This is only possible because of state investment in nationalized companies.
Enormous challenges ahead
The MAS has chosen its candidates, the social movements that form the party back them, they’re ahead in the polls, and the U.S.-backed right is divided between at least four candidates.
In normal conditions, this would bode extremely well for the party. But of course, these elections are not taking place in a normal environment. They’re taking place in an environment where MAS activists are being jailed on charges of ‘sedition’ for posting memes. Where arrest warrants are issued to those who hosted left-wing radio shows, where even the MAS’ presidential candidate has fake charges hanging over him, charges that were invented the day after his candidacy was announced. Will he spend election day in a cell?
There’s every reason to believe that even if the elections aren’t rigged, then the persecution against the MAS could well be ramped up to the extent where they cannot, in any way, campaign openly. Will the U.S. human rights industry and the OAS speak up? Bolivians are not holding their breath.
Featured image: Luis Arce Catacora, Bolivian presidential candidate for the Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS), is held up by supporters as he is welcomed at the airport before he departs El Alto, Bolivia, Jan. 28, 2020. Juan Karita | AP