Letter from El Alto: The Politics of Fear is the Raw Material of Polarization

“Our main enemy is fear and it is within us” 

Up until the very last moment leading up to Evo’s resignation, the MAS used fear to remain in power.

-Domitila Barrios

The night of November 11, one day after Evo’s resignation, the neighbors of several Alteño neighborhoods spontaneously left our houses (I live in District 3 of El Alto). Bonfires were lit on every corner, many of us were armed with sticks, waiting for the enemy. Although, unlike other past struggles, we didn’t know who the enemy was… We went out to the streets out of a fear of external aggressions, of the “vandals” or the “military.” This fear has multiplied over the past days and weeks, settling in our subjectivities.  

A bonfire in El Alto in November following Evo Morales’ departure from Bolivia. Photo provided by author.

As Domitila Barrios said, our main enemy is fear. In 1978, Domitila and four other women from the Comité de Amas de Casa of the 20th Century Mining District launched a hunger strike that led to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer Suarez. She said the enemy is not an external “Other,” nor is it power, rather it is constructed within and through that which we do not know how to name: fear. 

However, this fear is no longer faced with bravery, since it is a type of fear that has been transformed into a political tool of division, cooptation, and polarization that is fed by a double discourse (pacification with messages of provocation; pacification with militarization). Fear of the Other (“vandal,” “terrorist,” “oppressor”); fear of change and building a new politics (“what will come after Evo?”); fear that justifies the violent intervention of Armed Forces; fear of acting, speaking, and thinking differently in our own contexts. Fear acts to mobilize and exacerbate the population, facilitating the handover of citizen power to “caudillos.” Fear has opened deep rifts of pain, which widened with the deaths of thirty-five people, most at the hands of the military, in various parts of the country.  

No one wants to hear voices that are not in favor of what they believe or think. We are living, as [Cornelius] Castoriadis would say, a closure of meaning through the exclusion of the Other. This implies a politics of fear that takes up what is already there, such as hierarchies and inequalities within our society (racism, classism, etc.), and mobilizes them in the service of specific moral and political ends that seek to install one group in power at the expense of another. In our own words, as Aymaras, we could say that this politics of fear has used the t’aras of our society (referring to poor and working-class Aymara and Quechua people) to establish new conditions of domination and control.  

In his way, the politics of the internal enemy are reinstated and dichotomies (wild-civilized, center-periphery, rural-urban) which are reproduced, annulling the Other by oppressing the poor and at the same time blaming them for their own suffering. This is similar to when a male aggressor blames a woman for being attacked by him, or when a “democratic” system rebukes the voter for the hardships caused by those who have used it to declare themselves in power. 

But this type of politics is not new. Rather, Evo is known to have blamed imperialism and right-wing groups for his administration’s own mistakes and weaknesses. Declaring they “are from the right,” the administration covered up the politics of dispossession of Indigenous territories (TIPNIS) and the repression of Indigenous and student protests in El Alto (Achacachi and the Public University of El Alto, UPEA). 

Up until the very last moment leading up to Evo’s resignation, the MAS used fear to remain in power, making statements during the crisis that shifted attention away from the source of the crisis to link it to uncertainty about what would come next. Referring to the millions of dollars of economic losses from strikes and protests throughout the country in the weeks that followed the October 20 elections, for example, the Minister of Economy, Luis Arce, declared the suspension of welfare payments, adding it would “hurt the grandparents” and implicitly sending the message: “if we leave the subsidies will be lost”. 

Likewise, the current regime led by the Right marks and judges its enemies with similar strategies, calling them “vandals” or “terrorists” to legitimize military violence. And we might ask: Who judges this? As my lawyer colleagues noted, it’s the same structure of judges and prosecutors, but this time, in favor of the other side.

Internationally, this polarization has an expansive effect. Shortly after fleeing Bolivia, former Vice-president Álvaro García Línera published an article titled “Hatred of the Indian” in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. In it, he focuses on the racism and fascism of the Right and makes Evo into a victim to try to legitimize electoral fraud (which Garcia Linera avoids mentioning and does not recognize). Garcia Linera tries to cover his own political mistakes with Indigenous blood, creating a narrative of hatred and denial of the Indigenous Other, in the service of specific political interests. 

In his partially fictitious account, the state was a paradise in favor of the Indian, when in reality a large portion of the Indigenous dead and the victims of Senkata never received the economic and social equality supposedly granted by the MAS government to lose. As Alteño sociologist Jamie Kawi Castaya noted in his recent analysis of a “disenchantment” with the MAS, most Alteños are people that have received mere crumbs from the government, a far cry from the privileges of power Garcia Linera has enjoyed. It was those Alteños who died like cannon fodder at the hands of the same military forces that Evo Morales government granted pay bonuses to shortly before leaving office. 

We live a stage of polarization fuelled by fear, a fear that can trigger confrontation and revenge. Understanding that these expressions of hatred tend to be in the service of those who intend to enjoy the privileges of power (in the sham of the electoral circus underway) is a good start. Polarization does not contribute in any way to the re-articulation of the social base, the emergence of new leaders, or to overcoming union corporatism and corruption. It does not contribute to a serious reflection of what is happening to us.

The current government is built on the same foundations as the old one and reproduces the same strategies of integrating or replacing public officials with some Indigenous people for the appearance of inclusion, while ensuring the judicial branch operates in the service of their own interests. Indeed, perhaps the only change has been a change in the discursive facade: from the facade of an Indigenous state to the facade of a democratic one.

This article appeared in Spanish at Colectivo Curva, and was translated and edited by Toward Freedom with the author’s permission.

Author Bio: 

Magali Vianca Copa Pabón is an independent lawyer and member of the Pukara Community. From 2012-2014, she served as a member of the Decolonization Unit of the Plurinational Constitutional Court. Her doctoral research focuses on self-determination and the formation of local community institutions as mechanisms of dialogue with the state. She also teaches courses on legal pluralism and indigenous autonomy in El Alto and La Paz.