Perspective on the Recent Protests in Bolivia

Bolivia’s police arrested 60 rural workers in Samaipata, Santa Cruz, for protesting in favor of democratic elections. There are reports that pro-regime extremist groups assaulted many of them as well. Photo: Kawsachun News

By Jeannette Graulau – Aug 11, 2020

The recent protests and road blockades started when the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) postponed the general elections (scheduled for September 6th) for October 18th in a resolution dated July, 23, 2020 (Resolución TSE-RSP-ADM-No 0187/2020). TSE argued that the increment in COVID cases, as well as available ‘scientific projections’ about the development of Bolivia’s pandemic curve, were sufficient reasons for postponing the September elections. The text of the TSE resolution states that the decision was based on data compiled from the following sources: 

  • A report submitted by Comité Científico Nacional (a committee currently advising the Ministry of Health on COVID-19 situation) to TSE 
  • Data gathered by Pan-American Health Organization 
  • Data gathered by World Health Organization 

The TSE Resolution states that the above organizations conclude that Bolivia would reach the peak of its pandemic curve in or around the first week of September 2020. It has no data, and it states that the scientific evidence comes from documentos que forman parte de la resolución, sin necesidad de ser transcritos en ella (TSE Resolución, p. 8). I have searched everywhere, unsuccessfully, for the report by Bolivia’s Comité Científico Nacional. It si not clear if TSE commissioned the Report, or who authored such report either. 

In response to the TSE decision, many labor unions, organizations and groups supporting MAS delegates made a wide call for demanding the restitution of the original, 09/06 election date. The Pacto Unidad, a coalition of groups supported by MAS delegates and headed by Luis Arce, argued that the TSE Resolution was a provocation aimed at weakining MAS. It called for mobilizations to demand that the TSE retracted the Resolution. Mobilization took the form of road blockades, aimed at interrupting commercial traffic and arteries in urban, mining and agrarian provinces. The Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) joined Pacto Unidad, supporting elections on 09/06. It called for peaceful resistance against the TSE decision. The cocaleras federations, or Seis Federaciones del Trópico de Cochabamba, also joined the mobilizations, organizing road blockades in key routes of Cochabamba. The Seis Federaciones organization has a very active, influential, and vocal vice-president, Andrónico Rodríguez (very young, too!), 

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who unconditionally supports MAS and Evo Morales. As of yesterday, many roads were effectively blocked, including sections of Bolivia’s Ruta Interoceánica, roads in Cochabamba, sections of Oururo-Potosí route, El Alto-Copacabana route, and several roads around La Paz. Other groups have joined the mobilizations and road blockades, demanding Áñez destitution (in exchange of their accepting the TSE October election day). 

The press has been quite hostile to road blockades, blaming MAS delegates and Pacto Unidad for the surge of violence in some regions. The government has exploited the situation by building public opinion against Pacto Unidad and MAS, seeking to gain electoral momentum. This is the case of Juntos, the fierce anti-MAS, right-wing coalition by Jeanine Áñez, Carlos Mesa (from the Comunidad Ciudadana party) and Luis Fernando Camacho (from Creemos party). The Juntos coalition is dangerous as it can win the first round of elections. Bolivian 

electoral law allows for a second round of votes (or balotaje). Áñez, exploiting the protests against the TSE decision, proposed to other anti-MAS parties to run as part of the Juntos coalition, with an aggressive anti-MAS platform. Juntos’ goal is to win the first round and sort out candidacies (and Ministries heads and seats) in the second round. This anticipates to benefit only the strongest right-wing candidates: Jeanine Áñez (& Samuel Doria Medina, her VP candidate), and Carlos Mesa (with Gustavo Pedraza, as VP candidate). 

Moreover, Juntos has taken advantage of two situations: 

  • First, the discontent of a sector of the middle class, especially the discontent of the Indian low middle class. This sector links its ‘aspirational identity’ to rejection of socialism. The term ‘aspirational identity’ was coined by Bolivian sociologist Fernando Molina, to identify the rise of a political sentiment in the lower stratum of the middle class that links ‘upward social mobility’ to an anti-MAS, anti-socliast stance. There are other elements of this political sentiment, such as rejection of caudillo politics (which many see as intrinsic to Evo Morales’ years), and rejection of bureaucratization of ‘Indian politics.’ And ll, of course, yielding much political capital to the Juntos coalition. 
  • Second, the anti-MAS sentiment in northwest and southeast Bolivia, which has emerged in groups of autoconvocados breaking protests and road blockades. This explains why Cochabamba has become in the last week a volatile region, where pro- and anti-MAS groups incessantly clash. The anti-MA groups in Cochabamba have no direct ideological affinity with the right-wing party of Áñez, although they are clearly against Pacto Unidad. This is the case of Resistencia Juvenil Cochala (RJC), a group very active in breaking the road blockades in Samiapata, Tiquipaya, and Santa Cruz. The RJC has claimed that embodies ‘citizens’ right’ to break road blockades, acting in ‘the name of democracy and against tyranny.’ A group with similar tendencies is Cascos Amarillos, with a fierce anti-MAS and anti-Evo Morales rhetoric, appointing itself to ‘restore order’ in Sucre. 
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There are other anti-MAS parties, blaming MAS for the recent surge in violence, such as right-wing Partido Demócrata Cristiano, with Chi Hyun Chung (born in S. Korea) as presidential candidate. Chung is a polemical candidate on many levels: he is President of the Presbyterian Church of Bolivia; accused of medical malpractice; fiercely against agrarian reform, and Indian communities. The Acción Democrática Nacionalista, with María De La Cruz Bayá Claros, fiercely against socialism and the road blockades, has a weak base of support. The PAN-BOL, or Partido de Acción Nacional Boliviano, is more intriguing. It is a new party, founded in 2016, officially registered in 2019. The presidential candidate is Feliciano Mamani, leader of National Federation of Mining Cooperatives. One would expect PAN-BOL to be supporting MAS; however, the party has stated that it is no replica of MAS. Its policies seem a bit against Evo Morales, as PAN-BOL rejects the plurinational identity of the Bolivian State. It advocates for 

Sincretismo Nacional, which can be summarized as follows: accepting the ‘syncretic idiosyncrasy’ of the Bolivian Society; plurality of political views; assuming Bolivian responsibility, blaming ‘no one of the mistakes of the Bolivian society’. It advocates for legal protection to private capital (national and foreign) and property, and a new mining law attracting necessary ‘resources’ (capital) for modernizing the mining sector. 

Where does the government and the anti-MAS campaign leave Pacto Unidad? A couple of days ago, Pacto Unidad conditioned its support to the TSE Resolution to a national dialogue and a transparent electoral process guaranteed by international organizations. This move coincides with comments by Evo Morales to Radio Kawsachun Coca, supporting the TSE 10/18 election date. Morales also called for the country to be vigilant against a potential coup by a sector of the military highly loyal to Áñez’s government. 

Pacto Unidad, however, has three general problems moving forward in the 2020 elections, as follows: 

  • First, there is much controversy within the left about the merits of Luis Arce vis-à-vis David Choquehuanca (vice presidential candidate). Many argue that Luis Arce was the candidate imposed by Evo Morales from exile, against David Choquehuanca, an influential leader and activist in the Aymara-speaking region of La Paz and Oruro (northwest Bolivia), where Evo Morales had unconditional support. David Choquehuanca was sent to Venezuela in an official diplomatic post, after his removal from the Ministry of External Affairs (2018) under Morales. In Venezuela, he was the Executive Secretary of ALBA. David Choquehuanca has a strong grassroots base in Aymara-speaking regions, as opposed to Luis Arce, viewed more as a mainstream, ‘cultural symbol’ of Indian politics. 
  • Second, large union federations opposed the road blockades, suggesting that Pacto Unidad has problems with coalition building. This is the case of the mining cooperatives grouped under FEDECOMIN (Federación de Cooperativas Mineras de Potosí), which did not join the road blockades, supported the TSE October- election decision, and are currently in open confrontation with other community-based groups of Potosí. 
  • Third, the most difficult problem that Pacto Unidad has is the ‘middle-class problem’ of Bolivia: what to do with a class generally resentful of the erosion of its historical gains and depletion of its ‘genealogical capital’ (its anti-Indian, anti- cholo racial identity) under MAS. Álvaro García Linera has written several essays on how this contradiction and how it imploded within MAS. 

In the meantime, road blockades continue, and clashes with anti-MAS government-sponsored groups, and autoconvocados shape the current electoral climate of the country. This is, in a nutshell, some of the most relevant aspects of the Bolivian situation. I will update this lengthy note as new developments emerge. 

 

Featured image: Photo: Kawsachun News

Jeannette Graulau is a Faculty and Union Member at City University of New York