Cooperative Mining Protest leaves Vice Minister, Five Protesters Dead in Bolivia

Vice Minister Rodolfo Illanes, in charge of Bolivian security forces within the Ministry of Government, was killed Thursday night after being held captive by protesting cooperative miners. Illanes was part of a negotiating team sent arrange talks with a national protest campaign. He went to Panduro, a town on the La Paz–Oruro highway, Thursday morning, where he was taken hostage by members of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin). Later in the day, he was brutally beaten to death and then left on the side of the highway. His capture and death came on the second of two deadly days of confrontations between miners and police attempting to disperse their blockades of Bolivia’s principal highways.

Recent confrontations around the government’s effort to clear road blockades by cooperative miners have been unusually violent and intense. Two miners died of gunshot wounds on Wednesday at Sayari (on the Oruro–Cochabamba highway), Fermín Mamani (25 years old) and Severino Ichota (41), according to national government prosecutors who have opened investigations of their deaths. A third, Rubén Aparaya Pillco, was reportedly shot dead on Thursday at Panduro, near where Illanes was being held. At two more miner’s lives were cut short: Freddy Ambrosio Rojas (26) died on Saturday after suffering severe injuries while holding dynamite at the Panduro confrontation. Pedro Mamani Massi (41) suffered a gunshot to the head and suffered brain death in the hospital;  he remains on life support without prospect for recovery. he died on September 1 and was mourned by his family in El Alto.

As part of my research, I have been compiling a database of deaths in political conflict in Bolivia during the current (post-1982) democratic period. This work is still in process, but can help to put current events into context. This week’s events make 2016 the deadliest year since 2008, with 13 fatalities. In February, six municipal workers died in the city hall of El Alto (the nation’s second largest city) as the result of an arson attack by protesters. In January, soldiers beat a trucking worker to death during a pressure campaign by that sector.

Deaths in Bolivian protest have been less common under the presidency of Evo Morales than in the past and killings by state security forces (army and police) make up a smaller fraction of deaths than under Morales’ predecessors. We’ve identified 91 deaths during Morales’ ten years in office (including those this week), and fewer than a third of them were carried out by security forces. Meanwhile, at least twenty-one deaths under the Morales administration have come in conflicts among mineworkers or between mineworkers and community members: 16 in 2006, two in 2008; one in 2012; and two in 2015. Two cooperative miners were killed by police during 2014 protests in Cochabamba, during a confrontation in which police were also taken hostage. Altogether, four members of the police or military have died in political conflicts since 2006. Vice Minister Illanes is the first senior official to be killed.

This confrontation does not herald a general confrontation between state and society or among larger political forces. No other sectors have joined Fencomin’s protests and the group is at odds with waged mine workers who play a key role in the national labor movement. Cooperative miners are longtime allies of the MAS government, backed President Morales’ re-election in 2014, and endorsed another term for him as recently as May.

Since 2009, the most intense conflicts in Bolivian society have occurred within the broad grassroots left coalition that backed the rise of Evo Morales to power. The government has routinely alleged that protests from within the grassroots left have an anti-government political agenda, and did so again this week, but these claims are often unsubstantiated. The 2006-08 conflict between the Morales government and secession-oriented right-wing movements has long since concluded, and is unrelated to the current protests.Read More »

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Bolivia’s new business model: Custom laws for foreign investors

At last November’s Investing in the New Bolivia event, the Evo Morales government rolled out the red carpet for foreign corporations, with a little help from the Financial Times. Standing before an audience of executives and investment managers (no officials below the Chief Officer level allowed) at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, President Morales made a personal plea for the need for foreign investment:

We are accelerating our investment—the big problem that we have is with [our] private companies … Bolivian private companies are very small, and not even the state has the companies to build [on the scale we need]. This is what obliges us to come hear and propose to you to see how you can be of service, how you can be our partners.

Y estamos acelerando en tema de inversión—el gran problema que tenemos es con las empresas privadas,  … nuestros empresarios bolivianos son muy pequeños, ni el estado tiene empresas para construir. Este es lo que nos obliga venir acá plantearles a ver como pueden prestar servicio, pero pueden ser socios.

Development Minister Rene Orellana took it from there. In addition to a secure investment environment, secured by three new laws protecting investors, the Bolivian government offered direct support for investors. Orellana proposed that the government’s legislative and executive powers would be put at the disposal of foreign investors. Working together with investors, the state could “define or approve concrete norms, let me say laws or even Supreme Decrees, to support the initiatives to invest in Bolivia. So we are open to have a bilateral dialogue with those who are interested in investing in Bolivia” (originally in English).

At the center of this push is energy: generating electricity (mostly from large dams) and extracting fossil fuels. While exporting gas is the largest contributor to Bolivia’s trade surplus and the country has nearly doubled production since 2006, the sector has long struggled to find new gas resources and has been hard hit by falling prices. The state-owned gas producer YPFB has not found a major new field since the 1990s. For long- and short-term reasons, the Evo Morales government has declared attracting new investment in hydrocarbons a strategic priority.

In newly published interviews with Erbol, two experts on the oil and gas sector, Francesco Zaratti and Hugo del Granado argue that the Bolivian government is custom-tailoring laws to the needs of foreign corporations, Total . In December 2015, Bolivia passed an Incentives Law (Law 767: Ley de Promoción de inversión en exploración y explotación hidrocarburifera, full text) that transfers 12% of hydrocarbon tax revenue to a special fund to reward companies that make large investments in the sector. State incentives total US$2.89 billion. Zaratti argues the law had one particular company in mind:

“Mi criterio particular es que estas dos leyes son trajes hechos a la medida de algunas empresas. Por ejemplo, la primera ley de incentivos de diciembre del año pasado parecería estar hecha a medida de Total, con el fin de que pueda desarrollar el campo Incahuasi y Aquío, reservas conocidas, pero que no se volvían comerciales porque había algo que impedía a Total hacer la inversión necesaria para adecuar al campo.”

“My personal view is that these two laws are suits made to the measure of certain companies. For example, the first Incentives Law of December of last year seems to be made to fit Total, with the goal of it developing the Incahuasi and Aquío Field, whose [gas] reserves are already known but which has not been commercialized because something prevented Total from making the necessary investment to prepare the field.”

In May 2016, the government proposed amending the Incentives Law to extend the  production contracts of oil and gas corporations willing to commit at least $350 million to exploratory drilling or at least $500 million to exploration and production. Potential beneficiaries of this amendment include Repsol, Total, Pluspetrol, Panamerican, Petrobras, YPFB Andina, and British Gas. The amendment passed last week.

By returning tax funds guaranteed to regional and local governments, universities, and the Indigenous Fund, the Incentives Law rolls back one of the major gains of Bolivia’s partial nationalization of gas, demanded by the 2003 protests and delivered in 2006. However, the Morales government insists any short term losses will be made up when new investment produces a larger pie of gas export revenues beginning in 2017.

For now, a precedent has been set: even plurinational Bolivia will modify its domestic laws to attract and subsidize foreign corporate investment. The slide from 21st-century socialism to 21st-century capitalism continues.


Bolivian government tells investors: “The era of nationalization has already finished.”

“We have now finished the legal framework in order to invite foreign investment to come to Bolivia. This legal framework is mainly composed by three things, the Law of Investments, the Law of Public Companies, and the Law of Conciliation and Arbitrage. These three laws have been already finished. They have been also conciliated, elaborated […]


Bolivia voters set a limit on President Evo Morales

As previewed on this blog, Bolivians went to the polls on February 21 to decide on whether the 2009 Constitution should be amended to allow Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in 2020. There was strong participation, with 84.45% of registered voters going to the polls (a stronger showing than the 2015 regional election, but below the turnout in the last national vote). The result was a narrow but convincing defeat for Morales and the MAS party: 51.30% of voters rejected the constitutional change. (Final results)

Here are five quick things to take away from this result.

  1. This vote on Evo Morales getting a fourth term wasn’t to some extent a referendum on Evo Morales, but it was not a referendum on leftism, indigeneity, or standing up to neoliberalism. Evo’s personal image took a major hit with the revelation of his affair with Gabriela Zapata, a young law student in 2006 and 2007 who later became a well-paid representative of CAMC, a major government contractor. This scandalous revelation brought a whiff of corruption to the president in the final week of campaigning. Meanwhile, a deadly arson apparently set by pro-government protesters in the El Alto city hall undermined the standing of the governing Movement Towards Socialism party.
  2. Despite these winds, public perception of Evo Morales remained fairly positive. Polls showed his approval at 58%, far ahead of the support level for term extension. So, a significant fraction of the public supports him in his third term, but refuses to grant him a fourth. A narrative, transplanted from Venezuela, of collapsing support for a leftist goverment simply does not apply to the Bolivian referendum.
  3. The NO campaign on the referendum united left and indigenous critics of the government, advocates of rotating leadership, and right-wing opposition. This kind of tacit alliance has never fully coalesced before, although it appeared to some extent in the successful, if ineffectual, calls for blank or null ballots in the 2012 judicial elections. It also is highly unlikely for these forces to come together again in national elections. Nonetheless, the referendum did prompt a number of left dissidents to step forward as possible participants in 2019 elections. It remains to be seen which of their political projects will endure, win ballot access, and compete in that contest.
  4. The MAS and the YES campaign have lost Potosí. While all four of the western capital cities—La Paz, Oruro, Cochabamba, and Potosí —voted agaist the referendum, the poor and left-identified city of Potosí did so overwhelmingly. Over 85% of Potosinos refused to back another term for Morales. The department was once a MAS stronghold and has no significant right-wing presence, but its capital has spearheaded major protest campaigns in 2010 and 2015 demanding greater investment and new jobs. Serious disenchantment with the national government has set in.
  5. The MAS has a major challenge in candidate selection for 2019. It simply hasn’t been cultivating middle-level leaders to become national figures. There are certainly high-level party loyalists, like Silvia Lazarte, and a few long-time cabinet members, including David Choquehuanca, but no obvious successor to Evo. Meanwhile, numerous prominent MAS members of the past have gone from rising stars, to despised free thinkers (libre pensantes), to ex-members of the party. Still, Bolivia’s presidential runoff system and demographic composition makes it very difficult for a right-wing or anti-indigenous candidate to win. The interesting question is whether a left outsider could make it into that second round.

Other commentary on the results:

Bolivia’s climate pledge triples down on fossil fuels, megadams

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Last month, Bolivia submitted its pledge (English|Spanish) on addressing climate change to the UN FCCC, the body charged with overseeing global negotiations to prevent dangerous global warming. While much of the document is addressed towards global issues, the quantitative details show just how committed the Evo Morales government is to accelerated, and environmentally destructive, development.

The document follows  ambitious government announcements this year about expanding agribusiness, gas and oil exports, and electricity generation. I isolated the electricity numbers, with help filling in the details from this October 2015 report covering the Ministry of Energy and Hydrocarbons.

As you can see from the graph above, there are two big stories to be told about Bolivia’s electricity production plans. First, over the next five years, the country plans to massively expand its domestic burning of natural gas, more than tripling the 947 megawatts (MW) supplied by gas in 2013. Second, in a series of larger-scale projects, the country plans to bring 9,450 MW of hydroelectric power on line by 2025. This enormous expansion would require megadams at Rositas, El Bala, Miguillas, Río Grande, and Cachuela Esperanza (to name just a few of the sixteen proposed). These dams are likely to have severely damaging environmental consequences, particularly since some are located in fragile or protected natural areas. A third story is just as important: the government predicts that domestic power demand will only reach 3,000 MW in 2025, meaning that the vast bulk of the new electricity is intended for foreign consumers, mostly in Brazil and Argentina.

Bolivia’s climate pledge or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution manages to misrepresent this shift as a green move in two ways. First, it deals only in percentages: “Increased participation of renewable energy to 79% by 2030 from 39% in 2010.” In fact, the smaller percentage of nonrenewable energy reflects a massive increase. Second, it counts large-scale hydroelectricity as renewable and the carbon emissions numbers seems to treat these dams as zero emissions, despite the fact that entire biomass flooded by new dams is gradually converted into methane and released to the atmosphere.

Other unlikely claims are advanced in the area of land use change and forestry, including a unexplained promise to reduce illegal deforestation to zero, and to somehow reforest 4.5 million hectares of the country. These pledges coexist with a government plan to expand agricultural land by 10 million hectares over the coming decade, with the most coveted land for planting located squarely in the Amazon rainforest.

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NYC lecture, October 26: Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics

On Monday, October 26, I’ll be giving a talk on “Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics,” hosted by the Department of Anthropology at Queens College-CUNY. The talk will be in the President’s Conference Room 2 at the Rosenthal Library (campus map) at 12:15pm. If you’re in New York City or someplace nearby, please join me.


This paper explores the radical political values that circulate and develop across Bolivia’s dense and nimble forms of activism, with a focus on the increasingly indigenous metropolis. Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical organizational structure and a countervailing ethic that subordinates leaders to the grassroots bases from which they emerge. This worldview separates an enduring, morally legitimate world of community organization (“the organic”) from a corrupted world of political parties, staffed by self-advancing, individualist politicians who engage in transactional, corrupt practices (“the political”). Inside the organic domain, unions and other mass organizations replicate and extend the ayllu, an Andean structure for community self-management of the lands inherited from ancestral spirits. They valorize ethical principles of complementarity, solidarity, anti-individualism, and obligatory participation, blending ethical and political life.

Conversely, other organizations structure themselves horizontally, without a formal hierarchy or official leadership. People join these efforts voluntarily and individually without a joint decision of the others with whom they live or work; the organization is defined by ideological and social affinity, its common purpose. They achieve their political effects by networking: that is, by interacting with a far larger numbers of people than just its membership, through public spectacles, training, writing, and open gatherings. While less internationally visible, these nimble activists participate in the global circulation of practices of decentralized decision making, ideas like the de-commodification of water, and transnational movement networks.

Rather than mutually opposed poles, organic grassroots and participatory network organizations interchange ideas and collaborate in common efforts. A former Marxist union militant in the mines explains, “Solidarity is what is called ayni, right?,” offering a translation between languages for political visioning. Across town, an urban anarchafeminist collective embraces an indigenous identity while pointing out patriarchal attitudes within both revolutionary movements and traditional communities. For at least a generation, Bolivian activists have conceptualized radical political values as of form of decolonization, as a return to ways of living that are inherently opposed to the colonial and capitalist state. At the same time, liberatory political praxis involves the incorporation of new ideas, in silent contradiction to rhetoric of cultural revival. Drawing on multiple experiences, I describe both the recovery and the innovation of ways of doing politics.

On Allegra: Can a gas pipeline heal Bolivia’s wounded geo-body?

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.41.42 PMMy latest essay on Bolivia was published by Allegra Laboratory. It looks at the deeply felt woundedness around Bolivia’s loss of coastal territory to Chile, and the surprising notion that exporting natural gas from a Peruvian port could heal that wound.

Allegra is a fascinating site dedicated to the anthropology of politics, law, and art. You can read about them here, and check out their Academic Slow Food Manifesto on the same page.