Bolivian government and opposition coalitions to march on referendum anniversary

A year has passed since Bolivian voters denied President Evo Morales a chance at re-election in the February 21, 2016, referendum. The vote marked the first national defeat for Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party in a decade (although local election results have been mixed before). Prior to that vote, critics of the government from the left (on indigenous rights, unkept development promises, corruption, or the centralization of power) had ultimately aligned against the conservative elite. But by holding a referendum that could curtail Morales’ power without replacing him entirely, the MAS generated a de facto alliance between its left and right opponents. (A similar phenomenon contributed to the unprecedented number of blank and spoiled ballots in the 2011 Judicial Elections.)

Despite the 51.3%–48.7% defeat, the MAS has plunged ahead with a national effort to re-elect Morales, offering four strategies to legalize him running for a fourth term:

  1. Convene a constitutional referendum by collecting signatures through citizen initiative.
  2. Re-convene a constitutional referendum through the Plurinational Legislative Assembly
  3. Seek a judgement from the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal declaring that the president’s term limit is an unconstitutional violation of the public’s right to freely choose their leader.
  4. Have Morales resign six months before the 2019 election to make himself eligible to run again.

Unsurprisingly, these proposals have not gone over well with either left critics or right-wing opponents of the government. With the February 21 referendum as a rallying symbol, organizations in both milieux as well as voters on social media have organized mobilizations “in defense of the vote.” You can get a sense of the tenor of these calls here:

  • afiche_no
    Independent left ‘Bolivia Voted No’ image demands: Respect the citizens’ vote.

    A coalition of left grassroots signatories, including the movements behind the TIPNIS campaign, Potosí regional strikes, Guaraní protests at Takova Mora, and many other organizations put forward this document: Let’s remember why we voted no!

  • Pre-February 21 mobilizations have included this protest in La Paz on February 1.
  • On February 21, mass meetings called cabildos have been called for major plazas in departmental capitals across the country.

Conversely, the government and its close movement allies have been preparing their own counter-mobilizations to occur on the same day (or the previous night).

bolivia_21f_dia_de_la_mentira
Pro-MAS image asks “What happened on February 21? A series of media attacks against Evo Morales.”

These mobilizations will have the slogan, February 21: Day of the Lie. This lie is mainly the false claim by President Morales’ young ex-lover Gabriela Zapata that she and the president had a son together, and (after the referendum) her procuring of a five-year-old boy to claim he was the president’s daughter. The scandal combined sex, paternity, and the whiff of trafficking in government influence: Zapata became the legal representative of Chinese corporation CAMC in Bolivia despite her youth and lack of qualifications. Zapata has been imprisoned since early last year, held on a rotating set of charges including influence peddling, kidnapping (of the presumed child), and fraud. Since their unexpected defeat, the MAS has focused attention on the story, which broke in early February 2016, as the factor that swung voters against them. On Sunday night, February 19, 2017, in a broadcast interview from jail, Zapata put forward the improbable claim that MAS political operative Wálter Chávez and long-time center-right opponent Samuel Doría Medina had invented the story of the child in 2005 to be deployed against Morales at some future date. (Former MAS official Amanda Dávila, Wálter Chávez, and Doría Medina have denied the claim.)

Bolivian politics has been marked by competing mobilizations in favor of and opposed to the government since at least 2004. Demonstrating a capacity to mobilize in large numbers is regarded as a marker of political legitimacy.

OEP-PieChart

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:

Bolivian President Evo Morales holds up a beaker of oil from Boquerón Norte extraction well, June 2015.

Plurinational Bolivia cultivates new image as oil and gas state (in videos)

The Bolivian government of Evo Morales is enthusiastically celebrating two new finds of petroleum and gas this month, at the Boquerón-Norte well in the east and in the Lliquimuni block in the Bolivian Amazon. These findings come just as new presidential decrees have opened parks and environmentally protected areas to oil and gas drilling.  You can get a flavor of the government’s excitement by seeing some of its image production around these finds.

First is this wordless video produced by Petroandina (the Bolivian-Venezuelan consortium of state-run oil companies) celebrating the construction of the test well LQC-X1, which began operation last December. Preliminary results presented this week place this block as the place where large-scale oil drilling could come to the northern Bolivian Amazon. The soundtrack befits a cinematic drama, and the intent is clearly to make drilling for oil into a national heroic endeavor.Read More »

Bolivia´s indigenous movements march in defense of TIPNIS, 2011 (credit: Communications Commission of the march)

Evo Morales reopens proposal for highway through TIPNIS

Bolivian President Evo Morales has renewed his efforts to build a controversial highway through the heart of the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), a forested park that is home to over 12,000 indigenous people. The central segment of the highway would bisect the territory and accelerate already high rates of deforestation. Protests spearheaded by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in 2011 and 2012 postponed its construction, while funding by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) was withdrawn. The Bolivian government had previously said it would tackle extreme poverty in the territory before mounting any new effort to build the highway.

On June 4, however, President Morales told an audience in his home base of Villa Tunari, Cochabamba, that the project “will be realized.” His remarks followed on earlier statements leading up to the April regional elections and a May runoff that put the highway back on the official agenda. Now, with an overwhelming victory for Morales’ MAS party in Cochabamba and a very narrow win in the Beni runoff, the national government seems committed to restarting the project. In the president’s words,

On the subject of integration, good voices come from the new governors of Beni [Alex Ferrier] and Cochabamba [Iván Canelas]. The Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos, comrades, will be realized.Read More »

Open Letter to Evo Morales about nuclear energy

Re-posting from Breaking the Nuclear Chain (en) and Julio Lumbreras (es)…

Dear Evo Morales,

First of all we would like to emphasize that those who sign this letter consider themselves to be friends of the Bolivian people. We applaud what your government has done over the years for the welfare of the people of Bolivia, for the recovery of control over your natural resources as well as for social justice and the redistribution of wealth. We also support the strong stance you and your government have taken on the protection of the environment, with the institution of the Day of Mother Earth and the acts against the exploitation of food resources for purposes other than the nourishment of the people. Moreover, we have been fighting for years, in our countries and internationally, against military and civilian nuclear energy.

In this light, as friends, we have been surprised by the announcement of your government’s plans to start the process of building a nuclear plant in Bolivia.

We believe this to be a move in the wrong direction and we wish to explain why in the following few points. We also hope that this debate can be continued with the participation of the entire Bolivian society. We therefore welcome positions different from ours and are always available to participate in an open discussion with further contributions.

1) That for nuclear energy is a choice without return, and no visible end! No one knows precisely what it costs to dismantle a nuclear power plant, but it is likely to be comparable to the cost of constructing one; no durable solution for the disposal of radioactive wastes has yet been found. These wastes constitute a heavy legacy that is expensive to store and remains deadly for thousands of years.

Read More »

Evo’s extractivist dreams: Nuclear power and prospecting satellites

While facing an election next year, Bolivian President Evo Morales is thinking about his legacy. As the strong front-runner in national politics, his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, feels confident it will be in power for a long time to come. This self-confidence is driving the drafting of a 2025 Patriotic Agenda. Alongside the formal process, the president has spoken off the cuff of his desires for the future. And like any dreams, they provide an insight into the mind and orientation of the dreamer. In his oratory, Morales long seemed to equally embrace two visions: sovereignty through claiming natural resources for the nation and reorientation of society towards ecological harmony with Mother Earth. Now, however, he has discarded the Pachamama-centered rethinking of exploitation and dreams of technologies long criticized for their environmental destructiveness.

At the end of October, Morales declared nuclear power to be a long-term goal of the Bolivian state. Speaking at a government-organized summit called Hydrocarbon Sovereignty by 2025, he revealed that he had asked the governments of Argentina and France for assistance in launching a Bolivian nuclear power program. “We are going to advance, dear students,* we are not far off, we have the raw materials. It is a political decision that has to be made. [Vamos a avanzar queridos estudiantes, no estamos lejos, tenemos materia prima (el óxido de uranio es la principal materia prima utilizada en los procesos radioactivos), es una decisión política que hay que tomar.]” Soon after, he called it a dream: “Bolivia has all the conditions to exploit this form of energy, there are raw materials and studies, and I want you to know that alongside our brother Vice President, I am already dreaming of having atomic energy, and we are not so far from it. [Bolivia tiene todas las condiciones para explotar esa energía, hay materia prima, hay estudios y quiero que sepan que con nuestro hermano vicepresidente ya soñamos contar con energía nuclear atómica y no estamos tan lejos.]” (El País) By the middle of November, Morales had convened thirty scientists to sketch out a Nuclear Energy Commission.Read More »