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Q&A: The View from the Streets in Bolivia

An Aymaran man holds the Wiphala flag. (AP)

An Aymaran man holds the Wiphala flag. (AP)

November 15, 2019

 

On Sunday, November 10, amid intensifying protests that could not be quelled by offers of new elections, Evo Morales resigned, ending his nearly 14 years in power. But that hasn’t quelled protests either. In the wake of his resignation, there was a brief constitutional power vacuum. On Wednesday, an opposition senator, Jeanine Áñez assumed the presidency on an interim basis, but some of her first moves in office—and some past tweets—have fed the divisions. 



In these Q&As, AS/COA Online’s Holly K. Sonneland spoke with Vladimir García Pérez, a Bolivian population and development scientist at CIDES-UMSA, from his home in El Alto about what the mood is like on the ground, and also with Carwil Bjork-James, a professor of social movements, indigenous rights, and political anthropology who’s studied Bolivia for the last decade about how Bolivians continue to use the streets as a form of democratic expression.

Vladimir García Pérez
Population and development scientist at the Development Sciences Postgraduate Program at the San Andres Higher Education University (CIDES-UMSA), El Alto, Bolivia

This week, the foreign minister of Mexico posted a photo of Evo Morales in a plane holding up the Mexican flag as he was being received for asylum. What was your reaction to seeing that photo?

I have to admit that it was a little bit emotional because I know that Evo Morales represented a lot for a lot of people, especially a lot of underrepresented groups and indigenous and minorities. I know that Morales did not see this coming after being such an important figure for Bolivia and for the history of Latin American politics. I could feel that he was not having a good time.

Did you think Evo could win just based on his popular support?

There were a lot of red flags. On Sunday night, we [thought] that there was going to be a runoff. I remember watching the comments of political analysts on TV and they actually said we had had a good election day. People went to the [polling places], and this was a party for Bolivia because we actually have a relatively good history of conducting elections. Everybody said, “Go home, celebrate that we have gained democracy again,” because of the distribution of the Senate and the lower house were not in the hands of Evo and his party [Movement toward Socialism, MAS] again. 

No one took seriously the pause in the Electoral Tribunal’s vote counting. We were kind of doubtful but at the same time optimistic. It was a whole mix of emotions.

So when did you start to realize something a little darker was happening?

On Monday, a colleague was going to one of the protests at the Electoral Tribunal, and I went with her and saw a lot, a lot of people. It was still a peaceful protest, but people were being vigilant about what was going on. We hadn’t counted all the votes, and the indication was there would still be a runoff. 

Protests and bloqueos are a regular part of life in Bolivia. How have the protests over the last few weeks compared to other protests that you’ve seen and observed?

There was already a sense of division among the protestors. When you saw people going to the streets, everybody asked, “Are they with Evo or against Evo?” 

In comparison with previous protests, you could see that organizations and unions were divided, especially in El Alto. El Alto played a huge role in the 2003 Gas Wars because the neighborhood organization, the JUVE El Alto, was a really strong player in this, but right now it is divided between the Pro- and Anti-Evo JUVEs. They could not unite all the neighborhoods and people. In Santa Cruz, the strikes were very rigorous. But in El Alto, there was still commerce and public transport. The municipality was still running, businesses were still running.

I could sense that people in Bolivia were waiting for people in El Alto to react because they said, well, they played a determinant role in the conflict in 2003, but there was no organization in El Alto. The once-strong unions are now divided and the mayor belongs to an opposition party. It’s not the same city politically speaking. 

You had a tweet where you lamented the fact that the Morales government has “irresponsibly pushed this discourse of division.” How have you seen that play out?

Even before this election, the government was pushing this narrative of “the party vs. the others,” and the others are neoliberalists and right-wing political parties. But that is not the case anymore. There are a lot of defectors from [his political party] MAS and other figures who belong to indigenous groups and other sorts of organizations. Even in El Alto, I’m talking to friends and neighbors who still hold ties with rural communities of the altiplano and the Aymara community, and they don’t believe in Evo and his political project as much as they used to.

I say it is irresponsible because he kind of pushed this division that he represents all indigenous groups, regardless of if they like his ideas or proposals. 

And it was irresponsible because he opened an old wound in Bolivian society. During his time in office, I think we have made amends with indigenous communities and Bolivian people have accepted that they are part of the Bolivian project, whatever that is at this moment. For example, using “indio” as a racial slur was basically banished from our vocabulary, but after these protests, it’s kind of emerged again, and that is really sad.

So, the question on everybody’s minds right now: is this a coup or is it not—and why?

It is a hard question right now. Even I think that since events unfolded, people have changed their minds a lot. I’m still of the position that this is not a coup because of the referendum of 2016 when 51 percent of people said they didn’t want Evo to run for another term. Still, he had his party say that they would not obey the consensus of the people and they have gone above and beyond to find ways to allow his candidacy. 

This is not a coup in the way we’ve seen in other countries or even in Bolivia where the military takes over the presidency. [Morales] resigned, no one forced him. It was just suggested by the military because there was a fragmentation of his political party as events got more violent. 

But if the military “suggests” or “invites” someone to resign, is that pressure? What happens if Evo had said “No, I’m not going to accept your invitation to resign” and had stayed in power? 

I don’t think the military would have moved in. The most recent similar event is the conflict in 2003 when González Sanchez de Lozada and his political allies went into exile. The only people held accountable for those civilian deaths in 2003 were from the military. So that’s a big [deterrent] to the military not to take action. I know that there are some laws that say that the president has to sign documents explicitly stating how the military’s going to go into action and what actions they’re going to take. So I think this invitation to resign, this suggestion to resign was probably the most peaceful—though I’m doubtful events right now are peaceful—course of action the military and Evo Morales could have taken. He was trapped. We were trapped. 

Economics alone are not enough for people.”

It strikes me as ironic that Evo came up in the wake of Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation after violent protests and subsequent asylum, and now here is Evo doing the same thing 16 years later, leaving in not exactly the same manner but still not in any situation I think he could have ever imagined himself leaving Bolivia.

It is really ironic. No one saw this coming. I also want to point out how Sánchez de Lozada also said he was facing a coup and that the coup was orchestrated by Evo Morales and his party, so I think this is typical of Bolivian politics. But at the same time, the way international media and people on social media (Twitter, especially) have portrayed this has really made the narrative of the coup take off. 

It is a matter of this whole reinvention of politics that we’re facing globally in the context of populism. It’s not a black or white kind of situation.

What’s a question you wish that more people were asking about Bolivia and what’s happening right now?

Why is this happening? If Bolivia is growing economically, if our GDP is so high, if we’ve reduced extreme poverty during the Morales government, why are people unhappy?

I’ve had this thought that economics alone are not enough for people. Under his government, the middle class grew a lot, which wasn’t the case before. We didn’t even have a visible middle class in Bolivia. But as the middle class grows, there are different demands. There are new demands, such as having strong and independent democratic institutions. I think the new generation of voters played a huge role in this as well. 

Things have become more risky, too, and taken an authoritative turn. People started to say that you shouldn’t comment on politics on social media because you’re going to have issues. And these weren’t issues of getting incarcerated, but more about, if you work for an institution or company, we’re going to have a surprise audit of your books. Or, if you’re applying for jobs, it was more like, who do you know inside the government or how much have you posted about Evo for or against him? I think that young voters and graduates also feel frustrated that if you wanted to have a career, you had in some ways to be loyal to the government.

Carwil Bjork-James
Assistant Professor of Social Movements, Indigenous Rights, Political Anthropology, Vanderbilt
Author of The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia (forthcoming 2020)

You have focused a lot of your research in Bolivia. Why Bolivia?

I’m a cultural anthropologist who’s interested in how social movements coordinate and use public space as a form of protest, as well as the political process through which social movements are able to change their governments. 

Since the disputed elections on October 20, there have been constant protests and intensifying protests. What have you noticed about these protests in particular that has stood out, that’s remarkable, or that has a precedent with previous protests in Bolivia?

There were millions of votes on either side in the election. Evo Morales, despite what are now quite credible allegations of fraud, did achieve a plurality of voters, but there are many indices of irregular counts and eventually of fraud that were motivating a large public outcry all across Bolivia, in all nine of its departments and in all of its capital cities. And that movement was tilted not only toward the urban population, but a very broad coalition that exceeded the prior opposition to Evo Morales, so a lot of people who are longstanding supporters of Morales or maybe people who voted for Morales in 2005 and 2009 were part of the coalitions that were protesting this past month.

So both watching the forms of those protests, because cabildos abiertos, which are these massive mobilization meetings, and blockades were basically the central things that I explored in my research. I already back in the 2006–2008 period noted that the left and the right both used cabildos abiertos and both used blockades as forms of protest and they really are a way of different groups making a call, demonstrating their strength in the process of mobilizing. What I expected to see was a long period of mobilization and counter mobilization, and we saw some of that in terms of rallies on both sides, rallies defending the government, rallies defending the vote as people who are protesting election fraud describe it. But what we also saw was a lot of confrontation or attacks on the homes, or offices of opposing sides, and those were at a fairly escalated pace, even compared with the political crisis of 2008.

I know you’ve been documenting a lot of those attacks. What are some of the most notable ones? They seem to be coming from all sides.

I would say that the night of the election there were two largely symbolic attacks on electoral authorities because people had worried that fraud might be something that could happen. There had been pre-election mobilizations because of Evo’s defiance of the 2016 referendum. So, they were on trigger alert for signs of fraud. 

When the count stopped mysteriously, people mobilized into the streets. That night there were some arsons at three departmental electoral counting stations. That wasn’t a harm to people. What happened later in Montero in Santa Cruz was a turning point because...it was a very rare event to have the use of firearms, which seemed to be on the MAS side in this daylong confrontation. It is unusual in general for one side to try and ram and break through the blockades of the other side. Often, you’ll have opposing sides just both blockade and say, “We’re going to close off your city,” or, “We’re going to pull off things to go through the city and we’re going to blockade you on the outside.” Instead this was kind of an impatient, let’s rush through things, let’s move into confrontation mode. That day was a very, I think about 40 or 50 people injured and two people were killed, both people on the civic movement/defense of the vote side.

The next really big escalation came in Cochabamba, where you had again an instance in which there were attempts by the MAS side, by cocaleros, to attack meetings and blockades of the people protesting the vote. This had happened at a lower level about a week before, but then led to this really vicious clash in which 95 people were hospitalized in one day—one with severe cranial trauma that caused him to die, a 20-year-old student named Limbert Guzmán. While rumors were flying around that event, people on the civic side, who have been identified as youths with the Cochabamba Youth Union, then attacked the Vinto mayor and her offices and dragged her, like forced her to walk through the streets through the site of this deadly confrontation, and splashed red paint on her, and basically publicly humiliated her in a way that was very reminiscent of the worst events of 2008. 

Those were the points of escalation, those were all the major deaths, but we’ve also seen a lot of attacks on homes of politicians, and in the very last days before Morales resigned, a shooting and a capture and torture operation by MAS supporters of people coming in caravans towards La Paz. 

And so, Evo Morales resigned on November 10 along with his vice president Álvaro García Linera, and a lot of his ministers. We are in the days right after the resignation. What has happened on the streets since then? 

While there were at first some moments of celebration and calm, what we saw starting the night of Morales’ resignation was a move. 

Police mutinies in Bolivia are a different concept than probably anywhere else in the world.”

Two things happened: One is that you have to know that there’s been a police mutiny for the last seven days. Police mutinies in Bolivia are a different concept than probably anywhere else in the world because it primarily means that the police occupied and remained in their barracks, refusing to engage in any external operations. It’s not like the police became this armed force out in the rest of society. What that meant was that there was no policing of central cities. 

Immediately after the resignation, there were some attacks on Morales’ family’s houses in Cochabamba and elsewhere. There was also a fairly organized overnight looting effort by MAS supporters, who are against what they’re terming “the coup.” In La Paz/El Alto, in particular where 33 public transit buses were burned, offices, a factory that they falsely thought was affiliated with [conservative protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho, who’s the leader of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee. So a whole set of property attacks, and mostly yesterday attacks on police stations in El Alto and La Paz, and so there’s been that kind of, after the fact, “we’re going to defend Evo” militancy that has been very visible in the La Paz/El Alto metropolis since Morales’ resignation.

So then the intensity on the streets is only exasperated by the fact that there is this power vacuum. They’re working very hard to figure out what is the constitutional order. What do you think is something that could actually pacify the situation?  

So, ultimately the situation can only calm down if all of the major political forces, by which I mean the MAS, [rival presidential candidate and former President Carlos] Mesa, and Comunidad Ciudadana, the left grassroots movements that were disenchanted with the MAS, and the civic movement—the right-wing civic movement that’s fairly concentrated in and around Santa Cruz, but elsewhere as well—if they all feel like they have access to the political arena. And obviously, in the wake of Morales’ resignation, many of his voters are feeling very sidelined. They did deliver him a plurality, and so finding a way to have a transparent, fair electoral process that involves them is absolutely essential. 

The last time Bolivia had that was 2005, in between Mesa, and then the elections that brought Morales first into power. So, there is precedent.

Right, and that’s a moment when the Supreme Court had stepped in as president for six months and did convene elections. The Constitution does say [elections should take place] within 90 days, and I do think that that poses a real challenge logistically for the MAS to recompose itself and to decide that it wants to participate in elections. 

Evo Morales is now in Mexico, where he has been offered asylum. He is often described as Bolivia’s first indigenous president. But how is “indigenous” defined in Bolivia?

Indigeneity is a broad category that includes a lot of smaller indigenous groups and two very large indigenous peoples. If one thinks of peoples as people who share a common language, so Quechua and Aymara are important, significant languages spoken by millions of people. Somewhere around 70 percent of the population will describe itself as pertaining to an indigenous people, even though a much smaller percentage would describe themselves as personally “indigenous,” when asked against categories like “mestizo” and “creole,” and so on. But either a plurality or majority of Bolivians are indigenous, and that includes people who are living in indigenous rural communities. The majority of indigenous people live in cities, and the majority of people in cities are indigenous, according to the pertains to definition. You also have a number of lowlands indigenous peoples, but what I would say is both in the highlands and the lowlands, about 21 percent about the country’s territory is indigenous territories that are governed by indigenous collective organizations.

That was one of the main things Evo did when he first came into power and they rewrote the Constitution, was he really wanted to bring the indigenous character of Bolivia’s heritage into the state. It’s very explicit. It’s not a multinational state, it is a plurinational state.

Yes. And so the plurinational state creates a lot of systems for incorporating indigenous peoples, and recognizes all indigenous languages as national languages, and has some real devolution and some more promise than real devolution of powers to indigenous communities, and has marked the most remarkable enfranchisement of indigenous and rural people in the history of Bolivia. So, millions of new voters, the possibility of registering one’s birth in one’s own indigenous language, the access to government offices, and the mass employment of indigenous peoples has been really, those have all been critical parts of the transformation. 

I think the question now is, “Does any future government maintain, like stay a plurinational state?” Because inclusion of this plurality or majority is absolutely vital and is really the biggest question at risk. I would add that it was only possible for Mesa to achieve this very close election result, this very close second in the election, because he signaled in so many ways that he was going to continue important policies of the Morales era, and it remains to be seen whether that commitment will continue and especially how that plays out around the indigenous plurality of Bolivians. 

Luis Fernando Camacho, the civic leader from Santa Cruz who led this protest, into La Paz, he also made it, he’s emerged in these recent protest, he wasn’t a factor in the elections, has emerged as this leader who’s commanding a lot of attention and he made a comment that they were going to take the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, out of the Bolivian State. What was your reaction to hearing that comment?

I mean I think that Camacho has been at the head of the Santa Cruz cabildo movement claiming a lot of power without a vote, so it’s built on power in the streets. And that power in the streets is fairly localized. We had a very dramatic personal, direct-action civil disobedience effort by him to bring a letter and a bible and a flag to the presidential palace, which he finally did after the police in La Paz mutinied. It’s hard to tell whether that is a collective demand of the movement that he represents or a leadership bid sideshow that he’s been engaged in. 

But they’re very worrying signs along the symbolic move of some Santa Cruz police taking the wiphala off of their badges on their shoulders yesterday. There’s going to be a reckoning within the broad opposition coalition that has emerged, and what you saw a few hours after that was that the La Paz police had a ceremony involving the wiphala in the Plaza Mario, La Paz’s central square, to reaffirm where they stand. 

So, I think that Camacho is a lot stronger than, say, the Santa Cruz-centered Oscar Ortíz party, was in the election, but he can’t claim leadership of La Paz, El Alto, Potosí, Oruro—places that were utterly vital to the opposition coalition and to the resignation of Morales.  

Going back to Evo’s historical support, these were areas that had traditionally supported Evo, like you said in 2005, 2009, and have switched. I wanted to ask about that. The Bolivian population, the percent that identify with different indigenous groups, so how have you seen that shift for Evo/against him to when he resigned?

What happened early on was that you had Morales having these really extraordinary electoral vote percentages in Cochabamba and the highland provinces. As much as 67 percent in Oruro, 65 percent in Potosí. And then if you looked at rural communities, even higher—80, 90 percent of the vote. Those numbers I just gave you were 2005. He peaked at 80 percent in La Paz, and almost 80 percent in Oruro and Potosí. So those are extraordinary levels of vote across these regions. 

If one looks down to this past election, in those three regions, he did not have a majority in Oruro and Potosí, he had 53 percent in La Paz. I took the numbers as of the moment that the rapid count stopped because of all the controversy that’s ensued afterwards. But that’s a big, big drop, and there’s a lot of people in the highlands who have defected from his electoral coalition. 

On October 20, it was more than 5.8 million people cast ballots, and turnout was close to 90 percent. Voting is obligatory, but still.

It was a very well-attended election with very few spoiled ballots.  

If the coup vs. not a coup language is one unhelpful narrative in the discussion right now, what is one thing that you wish more people were talking about in this situation?

I really wish that people were talking about the degree of polarization and violence that preceded and now seems to be continuing after Morales’ resignation, because those are really relevant factors for understanding not just the balance of power, but there’s very often in Bolivia a backfire effect. It’s a big deal to lose people, to have people killed in mobilization. 

The other thing is that I’m just very frustrated to see that Bolivia, for the first time, is having a very serious filter bubble, living in two different media worlds environment, and the number of times that we’re having coverage of a day’s events that leave out very relevant portions of the event themselves. And neither one of those are helpful to understanding what’s going on in Bolivia. 

In Bolivia or in Chile or in Hong Kong, you see those challenges of narratives popping up all over the place.  

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Daniela Cobos contributed in the transcribing of these interviews.