Upheaval in Bolivia Lurches Towards Disaster

*For Nati, for we share the same concerns.

More than two weeks have passed since the elections in Bolivia on October 20th, and everything that has happened since has progressed extremely quickly. Understanding what is at stake is very complicated. In the streets and highways of Bolivia, what is being expressed is not only an election dispute, rather, at the very least, an enormous and heterogenous anger against 10 years of attacks by Evo and his Macho-Leninist pseudo-plurinational method of organizing political power, the economy and public life. 

The social energy of contempt and contestation from a population that is no longer willing to continue allowing certain things is being claimed though a huge effort, by the most delirious and machista conservative, capitalist, racist and religious positions.

I am experimenting, here, with the construction of an explication: weaving facts and contrasting narratives. In these moments, we must undo the logic of polarization, clashes and war that today are tearing up the cities and regions of Bolivia. This is also an attempt to grasp at the ferocity that which is being faced.

We cannot forget that Bolivia has been trapped in a fraud for 10 years. This fraud began when the new Constitution allowed the continuity of landowner power in the East of the country was passed, ignoring what had been deliberated upon by a vast array of members of the constituent assembly, men and women of the diverse nationalities that live in Bolivia. 

But we must also remember: those who became members of the constituent assembly did so through by way of the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party, which not only maintained party representation as the only form of political activity and participation, but also created backdoor means through which not to recognize any other political organizing, and thus negating, from that moment on, the expansion of democracy. This, for many, was an early affront.

We have to remember that on February 21, 2016, there was a referendum in which Bolivian elders were asked about the re-election of Evo for the fourth time, in contradiction to and above the Constitutional text, which was adopted in 2009. And Bolivia said “No.” 

No to the indefinite reelection of a political regime that encourages extractivism, though they do so with an anti-imperialist and rigidly authoritarian rhetoric, dressed up in the costume of plurinationalism. Then came the judicial and argumentative gymnastics about the “political right” to stand for elections that has come to the fore over recent years. This was another affront: Evo Morales was being set up to stay in power indefinitely.

There were elections on October 20, 2019, in which various candidates went against each other. The two candidates with the best chances were Evo Morales, with the MAS and Carlos Mesa, with Comunidad Ciudadana. The two are distinguishable in form, though in fact their economic projects are not that different: both prioritize the expansion of extractivism as the beating heart of the national economy.

Electoral law in Bolivia determines the following: if neither candidate earns 50% of the votes, there will be a run-off election if the difference between the first and the second candidate is less than 10%. The first counts that came in on that Sunday that already seems so far away pointed to a runoff. 

In December, Morales would have had to have faced down Carlos Mesa–an ex-vice president during a neoliberal government that fell in 2003 because of community, Indigenous and popular mobilization, an interim ex-president during a period of rebellion, an ex-newscaster–and his Comunidad Ciudadana, a heterogenous political coalition which has been organized over the past few years. Suddenly, at 7:40pm, the counting stopped. Silence.

The unexplained silence during the vote count caused enormous social tension in a country where, until about 10 years ago, a crucial principle of political activity by communal, popular and union organizations was the rotation of the people in high leadership, precisely to avoid the creation of an eternal leader. This had happened decades before, with Juan Lechín at the head of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB). The Mallkus and Mama T’allas of the Qhara Qhara nation today make us remember this, speaking with great clarity about how this is about is avoiding the concentration of power, and that one person hangs onto it.

After the silence during the vote count, some began to say “fraud.” Others decided to say “we won.” 

Discontent grew and it was then that the Civic Committee (especially in the city of Santa Cruz) began to displace the presence and voice of Carlos Mesa and his political party, Comunidad Ciudadana. Civic Committees are long standing political institutions in Bolivia: groups of “living forces” which differ from department to department, and can include chambers of commerce, local groups and fraternities connected to organizing carnival and local celebrations, professional colleges and union organizations, and so on. These groups maintain a strict class alliance, generally under the hegemony of local businessmen, in the face of the historical political “centralism” of La Paz, and in general, with the aim of defending specific regional interests.

On October 22, 23 and 24, a period of intense deliberation opened in Bolivia. Multiple voices began to enter public space, lining up behind one of two versions of what took place on the 20th: “there’s no 10% lead, there will have to be a second round,” against “there’s more than a 10% lead and Evo’s staying.” 

The Civic Committees from the departments spoke, one by one, the Committee of Santa Cruz being the most strident. The next days were marked by big town hall meetings (grandes cabildos): huge gatherings with tens or hundreds of thousands of people, where representatives from various party lines mix, and sharpen their positions, while attempting to dull the positions of the others. 

Up until then it seemed like a zero-sum vice: one which forces a position and obliges each of us to choose sides, although neither is what we actually want. María Galindo described the initial dimensions of the political crisis as one that could be understood as a “cockfight,” calling on women to build political power to intervene so as to avert the disaster that was beginning to appear. 

That call made sense to many of us and we sought to open a dialogue. The political game, at that time, appeared to take the form of a dispute between a victim and a victimizer: which was which seemed like the quid of the debate. So, Evo Morales is trying to get Carlos Mesa out of the game by cheating. Or, Mesa refuses to recognize Morales’ victory and Morales is rebelling against that. 

The Organization of American States appeared and offered to carry out an audit of the elections, given that Bolivia’s electoral tribunal has zero credibility. At that time, there was still room for discussions and arguments: the thrust of the dispute remained around decimal points in the results of very badly managed elections. If Evo only wins by 9.9%, it goes to a run off, but if he gets 10.1% of the votes, he stays on as president.

The production of four different meanings

The week that started October 28, which is to say, the second week of upheaval, the political–and increasingly social–conflict that was being expressed via blockades in the main cities as well as many smaller street actions, produced four different readings of the conflict, all of which are in dispute. 

Street actions in the south of La Paz against electoral fraud, October 29, 2019. Photo: Mandarina420, Wikimedia Commons.

First, the government of Evo, stubborn, deaf and triumphalist, began moving all of the corporatist social organizations which, it must be said, were not taking any initiative of their own and were, rather, awaiting instructions. They were betting that the weekend of All Saints eve (November 1-3) would calm the people down. 

Second, Carlos Mesa, Comunidad Ciudadana and allied Civic Committees appealed to the “defense of democracy” and demanded a run off election; asking the people to meet in massive town halls “in defense of the vote.” Over these seven days, we began to see an increased participation of youth, especially students at private universities.

Third, a growing articulation of feminists and women in struggle, produced another source of meaning in discordance with the above, which tried to undo the disaster scenario that was looming, making huge efforts to meet and debate and weave meaning together in La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and other cities. 

On October 30, Mujeres Creando, a key fibre of feminist articulation, organized a collective public intervention in the center of La Paz, where participants called for a “collective abortion” of ecocidal leaders (caudillos ecocidas). In other cities, women and feminist collectives carried out diverse actions: publicly “sweeping up” the caudillista garbage in Santa Cruz, opening spaces for deliberation in El Alto, and holding meetings in Cochabamba to discuss and write manifestos in a situation of intensifying violence. 

Fourth, the growing centrality of Luis Fernando Camacho, the president of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, created another source of meaning. This man, in a well rehearsed maneuver of patriarchal competition, moved further and further away from his promise to support Carlos Mesa, and started presenting himself as a protagonist, authorized by none other than “God,” to carry the “anti-Evo” message into the streets. 

It is in the third week of the conflict, at the beginning of November, after the celebrations and events in honour of the dead, that the upheaval was exacerbated and became even more complicated.

From the “cockfight” to the victim-victimizer-savior triad

Between October 31 and November 4, the collective demand for an electoral run-off, linked to the lack of credibility of the 0.1% margin that would allow Evo to complete 20 years as president, became a deafening cry for his removal. “Fuera Evo,” screamed the propaganda from the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, and its leader, Macho Camacho (as he himself likes to be called) came and went between the city of Santa Cruz and the airport of El Alto with a “resignation letter” which, he said, he was going to give to Evo to sign.

Each time Camacho came and went to and from El Alto (which is located above the city of La Paz), tensions mounted between those who did not want to allow him to leave the airport and those who wanted to accompany him to the center of the city. Meanwhile, Cochabamba overflowed with street brawls that left one dead and dozens wounded. The most racist and misogynist prejudices emerged, as occurred in the town of Vinto.

Rather suddenly, the voice of Camacho became increasingly distant from that of Comunidad Ciudadana, with two immediate effects. First, Carlos Mesa and his discourse about the defense of liberal democracy was completely erased. Second, any possibility of intervention that was being built up, with great difficulty, was quashed, so that a confrontation “between men,” which is to say, between machos, could be placed at the center of the dispute. In addition, Macho Camacho proceeded to anoint himself saviour.

This is what we ended up with: An ever angrier Evo Morales, closing Plaza Murillo, the political heart of La Paz, with his allies, saying that his will is the law, in the midst of growing uprisings around the country; a Carlos Mesa increasingly out of place and without a platform from which to speak; and Macho Camacho, coming and going from Santa Cruz to El Alto, affirming that God has chosen him as the saviour of the nation. He literally says that in a professionally produced video that is circulating on social media.

Victim-victimizer-saviour: this patriarchal triad has been installed deep into the political confrontation in Bolivia. The appearance of Camacho-saviour challenges Evo-victimizer and silences Mesa-victim. In this situation, the power of the words of feminists and women becomes ever more urgent and, at the same time, more difficult to enunciate. It becomes more and more difficult to speak our words, and to design actions that can air out the tragic triad that will end up eating us all. Some voices are scared and begin to bend towards one of the points of the triangle, while others among us steadfastly refuse to do so.

The situation in Bolivia is becoming more and more difficult. Bolivian society is being dragged towards the innards of the patriarchal symbolic order that sustains the logic of war, and that guarantees the expansive and colonial accumulation of capital. 

According to this script, the dispute is no longer about political power, rather it is about “saving or destroying” Bolivia, depending on who is speaking. Evo Morales can play this game, and in fact he can do so very comfortably. The discussion today isn’t about whether or not Evo has ignored the mandates that have emerged from the people when they’ve been consulted; rather, what is being discussed is who will save Bolivia. Evo-saviour against Camacho-victimizer or Camacho-saviour against Evo-victimizer. It bears repeating that this narrative has already led to three killings and many more people being wounded.

It is not at all clear how to get out of this situation. It is not fertile to adopt a discourse of “pacification” of the violent confrontation, which is growing worse. We must go deeper, and undo, to the fullest extent possible, the logics that animate the reiterated production of anti-community political forms, which expropriate collective voices and  decisions, which discipline bodies in a profoundly misogynist manner, and which today are personified by angry men waving bibles at each other. By way of example, readers, just listen to the pathetic speech  the “brilliant Marxist” (Evo’s Vice President Álvaro) García Linera gave yesterday.

One thing we know for sure is that we need to strengthen the collective and public voice that make feminist words, proposals and desires audible, raising the voices of women trapped inside a patriarchal fight for the domination and control of our lives; lifting up the decisions of communities that reject accelerated extractivism; and spreading the ideas of non-violent men. We need to exercise our power in order to unblock this situation. And we have to build this power ourselves, through permanent assembly: it isn’t the church, nor the universities, nor international organizations who will solve this. 

We must, as women and as feminists, strengthen and project our own political capacity, linking it with the diverse communal, neighbourhood, union, social, and intellectual groups that are decoupling themselves from a scene of silence and ruin.

Written on Friday, November 8th, 2019, as the question we are all asking is whether the army will be deployed today or tomorrow to kill our children and our brothers and sisters.

This translation was done by Toward Freedom. Find the original text in Spanish online at Zur.

Author Bio

Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar is a political activist and author of the book Rhythms of Pachakutik.