Struggle, continuity and contradiction in Bolivia

Issue: 125

Jeffery R Webber

A review of John Crabtree and Laurence Whitehead (eds), Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present (University of Pittsburgh, 2008), £24.50

Bolivia has long been marginalised from mainstream international political discussion and affairs. Even the rest of South America has often forgotten the existence of its landlocked indigenous core. However, the poorest country in South America entered the spotlight in December 2005 when Evo Morales won an electoral majority and became the country’s first indigenous president. He was elected on the back of an incredible tide of left-indigenous insurrection that began with the Cochabamba Water War against privatisation in 2000 and crested with the ousting of neoliberal presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa in 2003 and 2005 respectively.

Morales, who has led the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS) since the party’s creation in the mid-1990s, quickly embarked on a whirlwind post-election tour of the globe. More international attention was focused on Bolivia in the wake of that tour than at any time since at least Che Guevara’s fateful demise in 1967, and perhaps as far back as the 1952 National Revolution.

Conservative Latin American pundits, such as Mexico’s ex-leftist Jorge Castañeda, lined up behind the Bush administration to brand Evo as the latest addition to a disconcertingly immoderate current within the wider left turn gripping regional politics. Incipient fissures in neoliberal legitimacy broke wide open in the midst of a serious Latin American recession in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The economic downturn of that period gave birth to a series of system-shaking revolts in countries such as Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia itself. Extra-parliamentary struggles were later accompanied by a sea change in electoral politics as left and centre-left parties took office in country after country. Whatever the actual character of the various new governments once elected, it is undeniable that they were supported initially because they promised the masses an alternative to the two-decade old neoliberal assault and the destitution it wrought.

Morales, with humble rural origins and a political formation rooted in the anti-imperialist struggle of the coca growers’ movement of the 1980s and 1990s, symbolically played up his ties to Venezuela and Cuba from the outset. The conservative hawks in Washington latched on to this imagery to demonise the new Bolivian president.

The same symbolism that triggered the ire of the dinosaur Cold Warriors in Washington simultaneously captured the imagination of large sections of the international left. Too often this has meant neglecting a careful assessment of the actual record of the Morales government during its time in office and the historical trajectory of class struggle and indigenous resistance in Bolivia over the past decade. Few have seriously taken into account, for example, the revolutionary anti-capitalist aims of the protest wave between 2000 and 2005, and the fact that Morales and MAS played an important part in channelling this energy out of the streets and into the constitutional channels of electoral politics and populist reformism.

As it turns out, both conservatives and uncritical leftists have exaggerated the extent to which the December 2005 elections transformed the political and social structures of Bolivia. Deep continuities with the inherited structures persist under Evo, and his government has never shared the revolutionary anti-capitalist and indigenous-liberationist ambitions that characterised the protest movements that emerged in the first five years of the current decade.

If anything, as we approach Morales’s second term in office—he won a landslide victory in December’s elections—the platform of MAS signals that a further strengthening of its inclination towards modest reformism and conciliation with foreign and domestic private capital. Vice-president Álvaro García Linera has described the government’s development plans as building Andean-Amazonian capitalism for the next 50 to 100 years. His view is that a transition towards socialism is an impossible dream without an extensive intermediate stage of industrial capitalist growth.

The conjuncture of a new electoral cycle is an ideal time to take stock of the chasm between image and reality in contemporary Bolivian political economy. Such an undertaking was ostensibly the motivation behind John Crabtree and Laurence Whitehead’s recently released edited volume, Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present. Unfortunately, these seasoned British observers of Bolivian affairs have produced a wildly uneven and unsatisfactory book. What is more, despite the calculated pretences of distanced objectivity—the book is “not designed to promote any one particular standpoint” and is compiled by “sympathetic but uncommitted outsiders”1—the bulk of its content lies within the parameters of acceptable left-liberal opinion. With the honourable exceptions of the chapters by Luis Tapia and Carlos Arze, the debate is largely circumscribed by a left-right spectrum ranging from moderate supporters of the conservative wing of the MAS government to polite academic defences of the neo-fascist right in the eastern lowland departments, or media luna (half moon) formed by Tarija, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando.

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the text in its entirety can produce important insights into the ideological framing of the study of Bolivian politics, as well as occasional bits of useful empirical data on the state of the economy and the specificities of the country’s natural resource wealth.


Unresolved Tensions is organised around the themes of ethnicity, regionalism, state-society relations, constitutional reform, economic development and globalisation.

Part one, on ethnicities, features a debate between Xavier Albó, Carlos Toranzo and Diego Zavaleta Reyles. Albó, a Jesuit priest and well-regarded cultural anthropologist, is in an entirely separate league to his interlocutors. Even when one takes account of the near-total absence of political economy from his analysis, Albó’s work remains incomparably richer in historical depth and nuance than that of Toranzo or Zavaleta Reyles.

Albó takes as his point of departure the results of the 2001 national census. People over the age of 15 were asked which ethnic group they felt they belonged to: “Around 31 percent considered themselves to be Quechua, 25 percent Aymara (the largest populations of both groups found in the western Andean region of the country), and a further 6 percent identified themselves as belonging to one of 31 smaller indigenous (originario) groups and Mojeños (0.9 percent). In other words, nearly two thirds (62 percent) of the population said they belonged to one or another of these ethnic groups”.2

Bolivia, accompanied only by Guatemala, stands out in Latin America as having maintained a majority indigenous population into the early years of the 21st century. This is an extraordinary story of survival, rooted in centuries of resistance. Consider, for example, what officials carrying out the 1900 census had to say on the matter of the indigenous population in that period: “In a short space of time, in view of the progressive laws of statistics, the indigenous race will be, if not removed entirely from the scene, at least reduced to a small fraction”.3

Albó provides a useful historical panorama of the political struggles around ethnicity and, at least cursorily, their interaction with simultaneous processes of class conflict and state formation since the colonial period. Against standard views of uncontested colonial and neocolonial rule over a passive indigenous majority, Albó stresses the importance of waves of indigenous rebellion (and also indigenous elite collaboration with colonialists) stretching back centuries. Indigenous people did not “simply [adopt] a passive, prepolitical posture” in the face of domination, but rather were the agents behind “continuous struggles and rebellions” against the different authority structures of the colonial and republican periods.4

Albó is at his weakest when he introduces a cliched trajectory of Bolivia in the post-1989 world, in which the “class based approach” to popular struggle has been abandoned in favour of “a more ethnic paradigm”.5 In fact, struggles for socialism from below and indigenous liberation were deeply intertwined in the most powerful popular movements of the 21st century, exhibiting what I have called “combined oppositional consciousness”.6

He is also far too lenient towards the small number of indigenous elite who abandoned their mass movement bases and cynically adapted to the neoliberal multiculturalism adopted as official state policy over the course of the 1990s. The most glaring example is Victor Hugo Cárdenas, who became the first Aymara vice-president of Bolivia during the height of neoliberal restructuring.

Finally, Albó falls considerably wide of the mark when he suggests the MAS government has perhaps been insufficiently conciliatory in its dealings with the neo-fascist right of the media luna departments. “Arguably,” Albó suggests, the differing agendas of the eastern bourgeois and left-indigenous blocs have been “unnecessarily exacerbated by some of the [overly assertive] positions adopted by the MAS government”.7 The opposite is true. The MAS has allowed neo-fascist right wing vigilantes to flourish and the departmental governments of the eastern lowlands supporting them have also operated with impunity.


The important question of the uneven and combined development of capitalism across different geographical regions of Bolivia over the course of the last two centuries is far from adequately addressed in part two of the book on regionalism.

A significant mark against the project as a whole is that it treats the work of José Luis Roca as serious scholarship. Unimpeded by the actual historical record, Roca’s chapter maintains that regionalist conflict in Bolivian history effectively subsumed class and ethnic tensions under its umbrella, and continues to define the central axis of division in the country to this day. Roca lines up ideologically behind the separatist forces of the media luna against the alleged centralism of La Paz. The solution to pervasive regionalist conflict is, for him, to devolve autonomous powers to each of the nine departments, as the eastern bourgeois bloc of the media luna has demanded. This will supposedly result in the long-desired decentralisation of political power and perhaps ensure the ongoing viability of Bolivia as a unified country.

This ignores the massive concentrations of natural gas deposits, large agro-industrial landholdings, and industrial and financial capital in the departments of Santa Cruz and Tarija. A radical redistribution of the country’s wealth down the social hierarchy, along geographical, ethnic and class lines, is one of the urgent necessities of the day. The demands for autonomy emanating from the eastern lowlands reflect a political campaign to halt through destabilisation each and every modest movement by the Morales government towards that end.8

Roca cites approvingly the notoriously racist Pueblo Enformo (Sick People), written by historian Alcides Arguedas in the early 20th century. Roca agrees with Arguedas that the imaginative and creative qualities of some subsections of the Bolivian population can be celebrated, but that we must simply lament “the obstinacy of the Aymaras of La Paz”. Roca’s chosen people of the media luna are refreshingly modern, broadly supporting “neocapitalist development and market economics”. The largely indigenous departments of the West, by contrast, are “strongly influenced by traditionalism”, desiring a retrogressive “return to pre-Hispanic societal modes across Bolivia”.9

This analysis is roughly as sophisticated as that of Gabriela Oviedo, a former Miss Bolivia, who infamously intervened in public affairs several years ago. She remarked to the beauty pageant press that she hated the fact that outsiders think of Bolivia as a country populated merely by short Indians. Ovieda wanted us to know that she is from the eastern side, where the elite are tall and white, and very often have a brilliant command of the English language.10

The author of the other chapter in this section of the book is, in sharp contradistinction, a serious historian, Rossana Barragán. She puts to rest many of Roca’s simplistic formulations, especially the view that Santa Cruz was a victim of central state neglect until the late 20th century. “We suggest”, Barragán argues, “that it was the central government which financed the regions, while to some extent giving rise to cruceño regionalism at the end of the 20th century. We argue that if there was a single state policy that was constant, sustained, and enduring, it was the policy that favoured Santa Cruz, a policy that came at the cost of serious internal balances”.11 While Barragán’s piece is an important corrective, it focuses narrowly on the geographic origins and distributional patterns of fiscal resources going to and from the central state in Bolivian history. We still require a much more comprehensive study of uneven and combined capitalist development, and the particular complexities of regional, class and ethnic interlacing in the Bolivian context. Without this kind of investigation we cannot pretend to understand “regionalism” in Bolivia.

State-society nexus

It should not be surprising that in the context of effervescing mass movements in recent years in Bolivia the central concern for mainstream sociologists and political scientists has been the spectre of revolution and the concomitant necessity of containing the rebels from below and re-establishing order from above.

George Gray Molina, head of the United Nations development programme in Bolivia and author of the lead chapter in this section of Unresolved Tensions, writes, “In recent years much attention has shifted to the relative strength of social movements and the weakening of traditional political parties, democratic institutions, and the rule of law, among other dimensions of the state-society balance”.12 According to Gray Molina, a UN survey published in 2007 found that “Bolivians feel that laws are not enforced, because most feel that ‘laws are unjust’ and that ‘unjust laws may be broken’.” He goes on to note that “Bolivian public opinion has identified the worst transgressors as ‘the rich’ and ‘politicians’.” Gray Molina is also concerned that “most Bolivians continue to advocate ‘universal’ enforcement of laws while at the same time reserving the right to transgress, protest, overturn law”.13

For revolutionaries the question arising from this has been how ideological discontent with the reigning order, and its expression in the rising cycle of protest in the first five years of the 21st century, might be channelled into a fully-fledged societal and political transformation of the country’s structures in the interests of the indigenous proletarian and peasant majority.14

For liberals such as George Gray Molina, the priority is constructing and preserving the correct institutional apparatus of state-society relations to dampen the rising tide and consolidate the status quo—a status quo necessarily reconfigured cosmetically but with an unaltered foundation. The best bet for liberals might be a degree of “institutional pluralism”, allowing the persistence of “state holes”, “places where bureaucratic or legal state presence is tenuous…where authority, legitimacy and sovereignty are continuously contested”15 by unions, indigenous communities and social movements—so long as they are ultimately contained, so long as the overarching system of liberal capitalist rule is not threatened at its core. By and large, Gray Molina concludes, state-society relations under Evo Morales express many continuities with the preceding model and seem to be functioning to meet basic liberal ends.

The Bolivian ruling class and its organic intellectuals are, of course, divided on this point. Conservatives such as Franz Xavier Barrios Suvelza believe, in the style of conservative American political scientist Samuel Huntington, that a praetorian society such as Bolivia’s cannot survive the sort of “politicisation”, ie increasing involvement in democratic politics of the popular classes, that is occurring under Morales. A reassertion of explicitly “apolitical” and “a-democratic” realms of the state is consequently required. “The contention here”, Barrios Suvelza writes, “is that the current process of change in Bolivia involves a tendency…to reshape the style of the state in the direction of an unbounded and unconstrained democracy, one lacking restraint on the passions—what we might call in stoic terms a pathetic state”. “Pathetic” in this sense refers to “a style of state where democratic and politicised forces have come to permeate the state”.16 One can almost see Suvelza recoiling in horror as he writes of “the way in which democracy has overflowed into the decision-making sphere” during the Morales government “to the detriment of a-democratic and apolitical state functions”.17 This is the sort of political philosophy marshalled recently in Honduras by Roberto Micheletti and his cronies as they sought to justify to the world their military coup d’etat in late June 2009 against the democratically elected Manuel Zelaya.

Constitutional reform

Part four of the book, on constitutional reform, navigates the same terrain as the preceding section on state-society relations. It is unsurprising that Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, author of the longest chapter on the topic, takes as the acceptable parameters of debate the liberal-conservative divide over the appropriate strategies for the sustenance of the basic tenets of the political order and maintenance of the existing class structure. His biography, after all, includes an education in law at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, a period as president of the Bolivian Supreme Court and a brief stint as President of the Republic between Carlos Mesa’s overthrow in June 2005 and the elections that brought Morales to office in December of that year.

A brief reprieve from ruling class intellectuals’ anxieties over social order will reward the reader who manages to make it to chapter 9—where one of the most important radical political theorists in contemporary Bolivia weighs in on questions of “constituent” and “constituted” power. Luis Tapia is, alongside Álvaro García Linera and others, a founding member of the radical intellectual forum La Comuna, named after the Paris Commune of 1871.18 His theoretical and political writings are essentially split in focus between interpretations of the opus of René Zavaleta Mercado (arguably the country’s most important 20th century Marxist intellectual) and incisive interventions seeking to understand and influence the trajectory of left-indigenous insurrectionary movements in recent years. While this contribution is far from being Tapia’s best work, it does constitute the most theoretically sophisticated and historically grounded piece in this collection.

The terms “constituent” and “constituted” power are drawn from the Italian autonomist Marxist Antonio Negri but Tapia gives them an original spin in the context of Bolivian state formation and social struggle over the last two centuries. “Constituted power”, Tapia explains, “tends to be identified with the constitution and with the various institutions that operate as a state at a particular place in time”.19 Constituent power, on the other hand, is formed “when projects or forces emerge that seek to change the relationship between the state and civil society, the arenas within them, the subjects involved, the relationships between them, and consequently the political form that society adopts. In this sense, a constituent power is something that emerges at points of crisis, or provokes a political crisis that, among other things, can lead to the reconstitution of a country”.20

Unlike many of the other contributors to this book, Tapia is sensitive to historical and material processes and structures. “All constituted power has a history,” he writes. Rather than emerging from the ether, “it is a political, social, and historical accumulation that brings with it learning and experience, as well as conflicts and contradictions, leading (on occasions) to development in particular aspects or (at others) toward exhaustion and decay”.21

Tapia thus reminds us that the first constitution of the Bolivian Republic that flowed out of its independence in 1825 almost entirely ignored the majority indigenous population of the new country. The political situation changed with independence from the Spanish conquistadores but there was no accompanying social revolution. The 1938 Constituent Assembly introduced a labour code and other social reforms as peasants and workers were increasingly able to project their social power through militant social movements. In 1952 the national revolution carried things further, ushering in new changes out of the context of profound crisis in the social order. Perhaps more than any of these other historical periods, however, the terrain of class struggle and politics of indigenous resistance within the Constituent Assembly process of 2006-7 showed the most promise for change because the assembly was taking place in the wake of dramatic social and political upsurges from below between 2000 and 2005.

Ultimately, however, Tapia demonstrates how the assembly fell well short of its promise, partially as a result of the MAS’s attempt to monopolise the representation of the popular classes. Despite Tapia’s debateable belief that the MAS is a workers’ party that has captured state power, he fully recognises the compromised outcome of the assembly process:

The assembly became closely linked to the presence of political parties, both those of the opposition (which were against it in principle) as well as that of the ruling party, which, as leader of the executive, tended to subordinate constituent power to constituted power. In so doing, it limited the scope for change which had previously emerged from the waves of protest and which might well come about if the new political order included the full diversity of social organisation in the design of new political institutions of government.22

Economic development and globalisation

The last sections of the book, parts five and six, cover “strategies of economic development” and Bolivia’s relationship to “globalisation”. Carlos Miranda, an energy consultant and former hydrocarbons superintendent under one of the previous neoliberal regimes, writes on “Gas and Its Importance to the Bolivian Economy”. Fernanda Wanderley’s accompanying article is a basic neo-structuralist article on the need for Bolivia’s political economy to move beyond the “narrow-base” of gas to a “broad-based” economy, including a host of non-traditional commodities in its export profile.23 Following this is a piece authored by Juan Antonio Morales, president of the central bank of Bolivia between 1995 and 2006, and perhaps the only intellectual in the country who still fundamentally believes in the orthodox neoliberal model that was first introduced in Bolivia in 1985.

Fortunately, a chapter by Carlos Arze Vargas, a Marxist economist and director of the extraordinarily important Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario in La Paz,24 returns us to the real world of Bolivia in the 1980s and 1990s, at least insofar as that world was experienced by the vast majority of the working class and peasantry.

Arze starts off by pointing out at a general level that there is nothing inevitable about neoliberal globalisation, whatever the “suppositions of sociological and economic theories that see development as a historical process leading to the unchallenged rule of market forces”.25 Nor has it been merely a natural unfolding of enhanced cultural and economic interdependence driven by technological progress. Instead, Arze correctly argues, neoliberal globalisation since the 1980s has been “an intentional process, driven by certain dominant capitalist sectors and geared toward restoring conditions propitious for accumulation”.26 Moreover, the state did not disappear as neoliberal ideology would have it; rather, “the state continued to fulfill its basic function of guaranteeing the reproduction of capital accumulation within a specific geographical unit”.27

In the world of work, neoliberal restructuring had a tremendous impact in Bolivia. “The working day became longer over the period of adjustment,” Arze shows, “enabling employers to produce more surplus value. Average working hours increased by a couple of hours per day, with blue collar workers most affected. The average hours worked per week were…rising to 50 in 2000. The working day was also affected by the use of double shifts or by other secondary jobs which workers undertook to make ends meet”.28

While Arze’s chapter offers a welcome relief, it is unfortunate that the editors were unable to include some of his more recent material. His piece in this volume covers the neoliberal period of the 1980s and 1990s lucidly but offers nothing on the period since the Morales administration assumed office. It therefore offers no effective counter to the various liberal and conservative commentaries on these matters which dominate the bulk of the volume.


While marketing Unresolved Tensions as a simple presentation of the range of views that exist in contemporary Bolivian politics, Crabtree and Whitehead have in fact subtly shifted the centre of that debate significantly to the right. Drowned out of the discussion—with the exceptions of Tapia and Arze—are voices from the left wing of the MAS government and its sympathisers, as well as those intellectuals (not insignificant in number), who position themselves to the left of the MAS altogether. The actual polarisation on the ground during the first years of the MAS government has spawned, in my opinion, a debate that is polarising both to the left and the right. Steering the middle, liberal course has become an increasingly tenuous position as the real socio-political divisions and contradictions at work below the surface reveal themselves more nakedly.

In reading this book, however, one is helpfully guided, by the “uncommitted” outsiders, to the conclusion that social harmony without a profound transformation of existing class relations and racist colonial relations is possible, so long as modest reforms are incorporated into the status quo.

This orientation is on display in the closing paragraphs of editor Laurence Whitehead’s conclusion to the volume. “Major improvements are possible,” he writes:

The outcome could be called a refoundation of the republic, and it might rally sufficient support to sustain itself against some inevitable resistance and backlash. But the secret of success is not indiscriminately to discard or disregard all previous accomplishments… Constrained originality could truly provide the foundation for a more consensual future, whereas a utopian dogma of unconstrained refoundation is more likely to recreate the vicious cycles of the past. 29

A consensual path towards a more egalitarian liberal capitalist democracy in Bolivia is possible, one in which social improvements can be achieved in all areas without vicious cycles of conflict and dispute… Who is being utopian?

1: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p255.

2: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p13.

3: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p13.

4: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, pp16-17.

5: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p24.

6: Webber, forthcoming 2010.

7: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p29.

8: See, among other sources, Weisbrot and Sandoval, 2008.

9: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p74.

10: Fuentes, 2005.

11: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p83.

12: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p109.

13: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p120.

14: See, for example, Hylton and Thomson, 2007. For my own take on these issues see various articles in Monthly Review, Historical Materialism, Against the Current and New Socialist since 2005.

15: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p113.

16: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p125.

17: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p133.

18: For some background, see Hylton, 2006, pp69-72.

19: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p161.

20: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p162.

21: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p161.

22: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p171.

23: Neostructuralist arguments of this variety have been the principal counter to orthodox neoliberalism in Latin America since the mid-1990s. They find their deepest articulation theoretically and empirically in the work of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. For a trenchant critique of neostructuralism from a radical perspective that draws from Marxism see Leiva, 2008.

24: See

25: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p238.

26: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p239.

27: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p240.

28: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p249.

29: Crabtree and Whitehead, 2008, p269.


Fuentes, Frederico, 2005, “Bolivia: The Real Divide”, Green Left Weekly, 23 February 2005,

Hylton, Forrest, 2006, “The Landslide in Bolivia”, New Left Review 37, January-February 2006.

Hylton, Forrest, and Sinclair Thomson, 2007, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso).

Leiva, Fernando Ignacio, 2008, Latin American Neostructuralism: The Contradictions of PostNeoliberal Development (University of Minnesota).

Webber, Jeffery R, forthcoming 2010, Red October: LeftIndigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Brill).

Weisbrot, Mark, and Luis Sandoval, 2008, “The Distribution of Bolivia’s Most Important Natural Resources and the Autonomy Conflicts”, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, July 2008,