Some thoughts, self-criticisms and proposals concerning the process of change in Bolivia

By Pablo Solón, 25 February 2016 

[Español, Français] What has happened? How did we come to this? What occurred in the process of change that more than 15 years ago won its first victory with the water war? Why is it that a conglomeration of movements that wanted to change Bolivia ended up trapped in a referendum to allow two persons to be re-elected in 2019?

To say that it’s all the work of the imperialist conspiracy is nonsensical. The idea of the referendum for re-election did not come from the White House but from the Palacio Quemado.[1] Now it is obvious that imperialism and the entire ultra-right are benefiting from this great error, the calling of a referendum to enable two persons to be re-elected.

The referendum is not the cause of the problem but one more of its tragic episodes. The process of change has lost its way and we need to think beyond the corruption scandals and lies, however important, that are only the tip of the iceberg.[2]

I left the government four years ago and during this time I have sought to understand this transformation. What is happening in Bolivia is not something unique. Since the beginning of the past century various revolutionary movements, of the left or progressive, have become the government in various countries, and although some of them have brought about important transformations, practically all have ultimately been coopted by the logics of capitalism and power.

In a very summary form I share here some ideas, self-criticisms and proposals that I hope will contribute to recovering the dreams of a process of change that is very complex and is not the property of any party or leader.

I. The logic of power captured the process

Left activists in the government generally talk of the danger of the right, imperialism and the counter-revolution, but almost never do we mention the danger that power represents in itself. The left leaders think that being in power can transform the reality of the country and are unaware that this power will overtake them, they themselves being transformed.

Generally, in the initial moments of a process of change, the new government promotes reform or transformation of the old state power structures by way of constitutional processes or insurrection. Those changes, while radical, will never be sufficient to prevent the new governing forces from being co-opted by the logic of power that is present in both reactionary and revolutionary power structures. The only way to avoid this lies outside of the state, in the strength, independence of the government, self-determination and creative mobilization of the social organizations, movements and various social actors that gave birth to those transformations.

In the case of Bolivia, which in comparison to other processes of change was very privileged by the strong presence of vigorous social organizations, one of our most serious errors was to weaken the social organizations, incorporating in the state structures a large share of their leaders who in the end became exposed to the temptations and logic of power. Before co-opting a whole generation of leaders there was a need to form real teams to manage the key divisions of the state. The granting of union headquarters, promotions, jobs and benefits to the social organizations that promoted the process of change encouraged a clientelist atmosphere of top-down perks. Instead, we should have strengthened the independence and self-acting capacity of the social organizations, to make them a genuine counter-power that proposes and monitors those of us who had become state bureaucrats. The real government of the people is not in the state structures, nor will it ever be.

We continued with an hierarchical state structure from the past and we failed to promote a more horizontal structure. The concept of “The Leader” or “the big boss” was an extremely serious error from the beginning. The cult of the personality should never have been nurtured.

Many of these mistakes were at first committed under the pressure of circumstances and owing to lack of understanding of how to administer a state apparatus in a different way. Added to our lack of experience was the conspiracy and sabotage of the Right and imperialism, which forced us to close ranks many times in an acritical way (e.g. the Porvenir massacre, negotiation of articles in the new Constitution,[3] etc.). The successes and victories against the Right, far from opening a new stage in which the process could be resumed while identifying our errors, accentuated the more caudillo-ist and centralist tendencies.

The logic of power is very similar to the logic of capital. Capital is not a thing but a process that exists solely for the purpose of generating more capital. Capital that does not invest and produce profits is capital that leaves the market. To exist, capital must be in permanent growth. The logic of power operates similarly. Unnoticed by us, the most important consideration in the government came to be the need to retain power; this meant acquiring more power in order to secure our continuity in power. The arguments behind this logic, justifying a permanent presence in government and its expansion at all costs, are extremely convincing and well-intentioned: “If we don’t have an absolute majority in the Congress the Right will go back to boycotting the government,” “The more governorships and municipal governments we control the easier it is to carry out our plans and projects,” “The justice system and other divisions of the state must be in the service of the process of change,” “Do you really want the Right to return?,” and “What will happen to the people if we lose power…”.

If the original error in the process of change was to think of ourselves as “the government of the people,” the moment of inflexion of the process began with the government’s second term of office. In 2010 the MAS won more than two thirds of the seats in the parliament and had sufficient energy to really advance toward a deep transformation along the lines of Vivir Bien. It was the moment to strengthen more than ever the counter-power of the social organizations and civil society, to limit the power of those who were in the government, the parliament, the governorships and the municipalities. It was the moment to focus efforts on promoting new activist, creative leaderships to replace us because the dynamics of power were starting to wear us down.

However, what happened was entirely the opposite. Power was centralized even more in the hands of the leaders, parliament was transformed into an appendage of the executive, clientelism continued to be fomented in the social organizations, and we even went to the extreme of dividing some indigenous organizations and attempting to control the judicial power through clumsy maneuvers that ended up frustrating the project of achieving a suitable Supreme Court, its judges independent and elected for the first time in history.

Instead of the promotion of free thinkers who would encourage debate in all the spaces of civil society and the state, those who differed with official positions were criticized and persecuted. There was a regression to an absurd toughness in approach that sought to justify the unjustifiable like the Chaparina incident, and to reverse the victory of the indigenous people and citizens who had forced a retreat in the project to build a highway through the TIPNIS national park. This context, in which obsequiousness was prioritized and criticism was treated like the plague, encouraged control of the media through various means, undermined the emergence of new leaders, and strengthened the delusion that the process of change involving millions of people depended on a pair of individuals.

The logic of power had captured the process of change and the most important thing came to be the second re-election and now the third.

II. Alliances that undermined the process

Any process of social transformation displaces certain sectors, catapults others and generates new social sectors. In Bolivia’s case, the process of change meant at first the displacement of a technocratic middle class and parasitic state bourgeoisie that for decades had alternated in government and had always had relatives in the power structures in order to obtain bids, offices, concessions, contracts, lands and other benefits.

In 2006 this sector was displaced and although some of its members continued to occupy state functions it no longer enjoyed its previous power to carry on business with the state. A very intense struggle began in the country between, on the one hand, long dominant social sectors that had been displaced or feared losing their privileges (landlords, agro-industrial interests and business people) and, on the other hand, emergent indigenous, peasant and working class sectors and an extremely diverse popular middle class. The eastern oligarchies skillfully developed a discourse of “autonomies” in order to win support in sectors of the population and the confrontation brought us almost to the edge of civil war. In the end, thanks to the social mobilization and the defeat of these elites in the referendum to revoke the President’s mandate, the most reactionary sectors were cast aside.[4] However, despite its defeat, this oligarchy achieved some partial victories with the amendments to the draft constitution which at the time seemed small in view of the desire to obtain the largest popular consensus in favour of the new Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. This marked the beginning of a pernicious policy of alliances that over time sapped the spirit of the process of change.

Government leaders who had begun to be captured by the logic of power opted for a strategy of signing agreements with the economic representatives of the opposition even while prosecuting their political leaders. An economic carrot to go with the political stick!

Thus, little by little, the banners of the agrarian revolution were emptied of content. The vast majority of the pre-2006 landholdings were not affected. The emphasis was placed on surveying and titling of lands that for the most part favoured the indigenous and campesinos but did not go on to dismantle the power of the latifundistas. What developed in this context was an alliance with the most important agro-business interests: the exporters of GMO-produced soy, who were allowed to continue and increase the production of these GMO crops. While in 2005 GMO soy made up only 21% of Bolivia’s soy production, by 2012 it accounted for 92%. The auditing of the constitutional requirement that large properties had to fulfill a social and economic function failing which they would be expropriated and turned over to other uses was postponed, the illegal clearing of forests was pardoned and demands were made to expand deforestation for the benefit essentially of the agro-export enterprises.

These alliances, which prior to 2006 would have been thought unthinkable, were justified with the argument that this would split the Santa Cruz opposition and show that the government was well regarded in the cities of the Media Luna, while avoiding a polarization like that in Venezuela, since the economic sectors of the right-wing opposition would see that it was to their benefit not to disrupt the stability of the government.

This policy of alliances to stabilize and consolidate “the government of the people” was adopted in just about all sectors of economic power. The financial bourgeoisie, which from the outset was treated with kid gloves in order to avoid the risk of a bank run, as in the times of the UDP,[5] was one of the biggest beneficiaries. The profits of the financial sector in Bolivia went from $43 million in 2005 to $283 million in 2014. The pattern was similar in the case of the privately-owned transnational mining industry which, notwithstanding a few nationalizations, has retained a 70% share of mining exports throughout the last ten years. The Ministry of Finance reports that private sector profits had risen to more than $4 billion by 2013.

The process of change had not only been captured by the logic of power but the interests of the right-wing business sectors had begun to undermine it from within.

III. The nouveaux riches

These policies of alliance with the enemy would not have been possible had there not occurred as well a transformation in the social foundation of the process of change. In almost all revolutionary processes that have taken place in this and the past century, after a process of confrontation with the old displaced sectors there arise within the revolutionary process groups of nouveaux riches and bureaucrats who want to enjoy their new status and to do so they ally with sectors of the old rich. Improvement in the conditions of life of some sectors, in particular some leaderships, does not necessarily lead to a better development of consciousness, rather the contrary. The only way to resist those nouveaux riches and new middle classes of popular origin is, once again, through having strong social organizations. However, when these organizations are weakened and co-opted by the state, there is no counterweight to the new sectors of economic power that begin to influence in a decisive way the decisions that are taken.

By the beginning of the government’s second mandate, in 2010, it was clear that the major danger for the process of change came not from outside but from within the leaderships and new power groups that were forming in the municipalities, governorships, state enterprises, public administration, armed forces and government ministries. The distribution of the rent from the gas between all of these entities opened up an incredible opportunity to do business — deals of all kinds, both big and small. In the higher spheres they were aware of the danger but efficient mechanisms of internal and external monitoring of the state apparatus were not adopted in time. The dominant logic came to be that of public works followed by more works in an effort to win more popularity and thereby be re-elected. That is how new sectors of economic power came to the fore — political and union leaders, and contractors who began to climb socially thanks to the state. Added to them were merchants, smugglers, cooperativistaminers, coca growers, transportistas [bus and truck owners] and others who obtained a series of concessions and benefits as a result of which they represented major sources of electoral support.

The problem of the process of change is deeper than what appears. It involves not only serious mistakes by individuals or soap-opera corruption scandals but the emergence now of a bourgeoisie and popular middle class — chola, Aymara and Quechua — who want no more than to continue with their process of economic accumulation.

To renew the process of change it is necessary to reinvigorate old social organizations and create new ones. Today there is no assurance that those who were the key actors a decade ago will be the key actors of tomorrow. It is foolish to think that with a change of personnel it is possible to resume the process of change. The process is more complex, and requires the reconstitution of the social fabric that gave rise to it.

IV. From Vivir Bien to extractivism

To reinvigorate and renew the process of change it is fundamental to know what country we are building and be very sincere and self-critical. The achievements of the last ten years are undeniable in many aspects and have their origin in the increased income of the state resulting from the renegotiation of the contracts with the petroleum transnationals at a time of high prices of hydrocarbons. Strictly speaking it cannot be said that it was a nationalization since even today two transnational enterprises, Petrobras and Repsol, handle 75% of the production of natural gas in Bolivia. What it involved was a renegotiation of contracts to provide that the share of total profits of these transnational companies got through earnings and recovery of costs declined from 43% in 2005 to only 22% in 2013. It is true that the petroleum transnationals remain in Bolivia and make three times what they were making ten years ago, but the other side of the coin is that the state now has eight times as much income, rising from $673 million in 2005 to $5.459 billion in 2013.[6] This enormous increase in revenue has allowed a leap in public investment, the application of a series of conditional cash grant social programs, the development of infrastructure projects, the extension of basic services, an increase in international reserves and other measures. Compared to past decades, there has undeniably been an improvement in the situation of the population, and that explains the support the government still has.

However, the question is where is this model taking us? To Vivir Bien? To communitarian socialism? Or, on the contrary, have we become addicted to extractivism and the rentism of a basically export-oriented capitalist economy?

The original idea was to nationalize hydrocarbons in order to redistribute the wealth and advance from extractivism of raw materials to diversification of the economy. Now, ten years later, notwithstanding some economic diversification projects, we have not overcome the trend and instead are more dependent on exports of raw materials (gas, minerals and soy). Why have we stalled at the halfway point and made ourselves virtual addicts of extractivism and exports? Because this was the easiest way to obtain resources and to retain power. Of course there were other options, but obviously none of them would have quickly generated the revenue from foreign exchange that would build popular support for the government. Advancing toward an agro-ecological Bolivia would have been a road much more consistent with Vivir Bien and care for Mother Earth, but it would not have guaranteed in the short term large amounts of economic revenue and would have led to a confrontation with the big agro-industrial sector founded on GMO-based soy production and export.

Self-critically, we must say that the import substitution vision we have had for more than ten years is not feasible on the scale we imagined due to competition from much cheaper international goods and the reduced size of our own internal market. And it is still more difficult when no real monopoly of foreign trade and control of smuggling has been established. Appropriate measures such as restraining Bolivia’s free-trade agreements, terminating the FTA with Mexico and breaking from the CIADI,[7] were not accompanied by measures for effective control of foreign trade.

Vivir Bien and the rights of Mother Earth attracted international renown but at the national level were increasingly devalued because they were limited to the realm of discourse, but not practice. The TIPNIS dispute was the drop that overflowed the glass, illustrating the inconsistency between talking and doing.

V. Another Bolivia is possible

Days before the referendum it was reported that a solar energy plant would be built in Oruro that will generate 50 MW of power and cover one half of the demand for electrical energy in the department of Oruro, for an investment of about $100 million. The news attracted little attention, although it is a small indication of how Another Bolivia is Possible.

Bolivia can gradually let go of extractivism and put itself in the vanguard of a real community-based solar energy revolution. If it were to invest one billion dollars it could generate 500 MW of solar energy, which is about one-third of the present national demand. The transformation can be much more profound if we consider that the government has announced it will spend a total of 47 billion dollars on investments between now and 2020.

Furthermore, Bolivia could support community, municipal and family solar power that would turn electricity consumers into energy producers. Instead of subsidizing diesel for agro-industrial interests, that money could be invested to help lower-income Bolivians generate solar energy on their roofs. The generation of electrical energy would be democratized and decentralized. Vivir Bien will begin to be a reality when society is economically empowered (as producers and not only as consumers and recipients of social welfare grants) and activities are promoted to recover our lost equilibrium with nature.

The true alternative to privatization is not statization but the socialization of the means of production. State enterprises often behave like private enterprises when there is no effective participation and social control. Looking to the generation of solar energy based on community, municipal and family efforts would help empower society in place of the state and would help to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that produce climate change.

The topic of community and family solar energy is just a small indication of how we can think outside of the traditional patterns of “development.” Similarly, we must recover the proposal of a Bolivia of ecological agriculture and forestry because the true wealth of nations in the decades ahead will not be in the destructive extractivism of raw materials but in the preservation of our biodiversity, in the production of ecological products, and in coexistence with nature, in which we have a great legacy through the indigenous peoples. Bolivia must not commit the same errors of the so-called “developed” nations. The country can leap stages if it knows how to read the real possibilities and dangers of the 21st century and leave behind the old developmentalism of the 20th century.

No one is thinking of putting an end to the extraction and export of gas forthwith. But it is definitely not possible to be making plans to extend extractivism when there exist alternatives that perhaps in the short term are more complicated to implement but in the medium term are much more beneficial for humanity and Mother Earth.

Instead of promoting referendums for the re-election of two persons we should be promoting referendums on GMOs, nuclear energy, megadams, deforestation, public investment and many other subjects that are crucial for the process of change. The process can only be renewed through a greater exercise of real democracy.

A misreading of what has occurred can lead to more authoritarian forms of government and the emergence of a new neoliberal Right, as is happening in Argentina. No doubt there are right-wing sectors operating both from the opposition and from within the government. Nor can we close our eyes to the fact that sectors of the Left and social movements have let themselves be co-opted by power and we have been unable to articulate a clear alternative program.

The renewal of the process of change involves: (a) critically and pro-actively discussing the problems of unviable late capitalist developmentalism underlying the Patriotic Agenda for 2025;[8] (b) evaluating, explaining and adopting actions inside and outside of the state in order to confront the problems and dangers generated by the logic of power (authoritarianism, clientelism, contentment with the status quo, nouveaux riches, spurious pragmatic alliances, corruption, etc.); (c) overcoming the contradiction between what we say and what we do, and implementing in real life the rights of Mother Earth and projects that substantially contribute to harmony with Nature; and (d) being self-critical with ourselves and with the very same organizations and social movements that in some cases reproduce damaging autocratic practices and unwarranted prerogatives for a few.

Vivir Bien is possible!

25 February 2016


[1] Palacio Quemado, literally “burned palace,” the popular name for the Presidential Palace, official residence of the President.

[2] During the referendum campaign, opposition and social media fulminated over a number of scandals that were later proved to be without foundation. Perhaps the most notorious began with an opposition journalist’s allegation shortly before the referendum vote that Evo Morales had fathered a “love child” in 2007 with a woman, now the Bolivian head of a Chinese construction company, that was allegedly being given priority in the awarding of state contracts. No such child has ever been produced and asubsequent parliamentary inquiry found no evidence of influence-peddling in the awarding of the company’s contracts.

[3] Following the defeat of the right-wing opposition governors in the 2008 presidential recall referendum, the MAS majority leaders in the Constituent Assembly negotiated with the opposition leaders important concessions (retention of a Senate, no retroactivity of the land reform that would have ended latifundism, etc.) in the draft Constitution in order to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority for adoption of the final version, which was then ratified in a popular plebiscite.

[4] See note 4, above.

[5] See, for example, James Dunkerley, Political Transition and Economic Stabilisation: Bolivia, 1982-1989, Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, 1990. In particular, pp. 16-17.

[6] Carlos Arce Vargas, Una década de gobierno: ¿Construyendo el Vivir Bien o el capitalismo salvaje?, CEDLA 2016.

[7] CIADI – Centro Internacional de Arreglo de Diferencias Relativas a Inversiones, or International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, associated with the World Bank.

[8] Evo Morales unveiled the Patriotic Agenda in his annual Presidential Report, January 22, 2013. The full text with explanations, in Spanish, is available here.

We thank Richard Fidler for the translation of this article