Revolution against “progress”: the TIPNIS struggle and class contradictions in Bolivia

Issue: 133

Jeffery R Webber

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.1

In the two and a half months that passed between mid-August and late October of this year, the Bolivian government of Evo Morales entered into its worst crisis to date.2 From a high of 70 percent popularity in January 2010, Morales had plunged by mid-October 2011 to an average 35 percent approval rating across the major cities of La Paz, El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.3 The president’s green light to a decades-old project to build a highway connecting Villa Tunari (in the department of Cochabamba) north to San Ignacio de Moxos (in the department of Beni), through the indigenous territory and national park known as TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena del Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure), was the catalyst of crisis in this instance.

Beginning on 15 August, lowland indigenous movements—in alliance with fractions of the highland indigenous movement, and later with the support of the urban labour movement—launched a 600-kilometre, 65-day march of protest from Beni to La Paz to prevent the construction of the highway. The march, after having been denounced by state managers as an imperialist conspiracy, and violently repressed en route by police forces on 25 September, eventually forced the Morales government to capitulate to its demands, at least temporarily. There would be no road through TIPNIS.

The bureaucratic leader of the principal highland indigenous peasant confederation (CSUTCB), Roberto Coraite, a prototypical steward of the ruling party’s interests embedded in a popular organisation, embarrassed the government by calling the lowland indigenous protesters “savages”.4 But the political fallout would run deeper still. The minister of defence, Cecilia Chacón, resigned in disgust at the police repression of unarmed protesters on 25 September. The highest echelons of the regime, Evo Morales and vice-president Álvaro García Linera, sought to distance themselves from the police raid once it proved unpopular, allowing chief of staff and minister of the interior Sacha Llorenti to take the hit for the team.

Encapsulating the tenor of the times, the so-called Pact of Unity, an eclectic coalition of various urban and rural social movements and trade unions that had lent support to the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, MAS) at different junctures since 2006, has imploded.5 It was reduced from 11 pillar organisations to merely three at its last national assembly this November, as a consequence of key lowland indigenous groups and urban labour confederations leaving en masse after having been denounced as traitors by government officials.6 The TIPNIS conflict is the most recent, and in some ways most intense, expression of the class contradictions—or “creative tensions”, as government functionaries prefer7—underlying the development model introduced by the Morales government after its assumption of power in January 2006. How did we get here?

Revolutionary moments and bureaucratic stagnation

Evo Morales was elected as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in December 2005 on the heels of a revolutionary epoch. Left-indigenous insurrection shook the city streets and countryside over the first five years of this century. Two neoliberal presidents were overthrown through mass extra-parliamentary
mobilisation in under two years—Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003, and Carlos Mesa in 2005. A counter-power from below emerged in opposition to the capitalist state, in which the popular classes “practised that democracy that we have always wanted: direct, participatory, without intermediaries, in assemblies and councils, in the plazas, the streets, the unions, the communities, the families and the territories, deliberating, deciding and executing what we had decided”.8 The cycle of left-indigenous revolt was a combined liberation struggle for emancipation from the endemic and systematised racial oppression of the indigenous majority as well as their intricately intertwined class exploitation and subordination to imperialism through the racialised form that capitalism assumed in the Bolivian context.9

US imperialism had been militarily overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time. It had also been financially weakened through the debilitation of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on the entirety of the world stage, but particularly in Latin America, where there emerged alternative lines of credit through oil-rich Venezuela, under the presidency of Hugo Chávez. Neoliberalism had been devastated ideologically in South America in the wake of the steep recession of 1998-2002. Heads of state had been overthrown through revolts in Ecuador and Argentina. Centre-left governments in neighbouring states were asserting relative autonomy from the US, even as they encountered frequent challenges domestically through class struggle from below and to their left. The monotonous routine of neoliberal impositions over the preceding two decades was now in question. Discussion of anti-capitalism on the road blockades, in communal assemblies, in poor neighbourhoods and in union halls was now imbued with an intensity that accompanies the sense of real possibility.

The Bolivian right had retreated to its parochial geographical heartland, namely the eastern departments of Santa Cruz and Tarija, and could offer no alternative political platform to the entirely discredited neoliberal orthodoxy first introduced in 1985. Moreover, they had lost their links in the military. The social bases for the reproduction of their doctrine of free markets had eroded beneath their feet, tested as that ethos had been against the fire of Bolivian reality. The figurative rising tide that would lift all boats failed to materialise. Instead, orthodox economics meant poverty, inequality, unemployment and dispossession.

What is more, had there been a genuine possibility of a military coup in the face of left-indigenous encroachments on the reigning power structures,
this would have occurred during the crisis of June 2005, when Mesa was clearly on his way out and key figures of the far-right in Congress wanted to assume power directly and avoid elections at any cost. The right were unable to garner sufficient support within the military to carry out their plans.

As Álvaro García Linera—current vice-president of Bolivia and erstwhile revolutionary Marxist—has explained, the 2000-5 period represented a genuine revolutionary epoch in Bolivia.10 Daniel Bensaïd summed up in a singular phrase the theorisation of such a historical moment in the works of Lenin and Trotsky: “It is defined by an interaction between several variable elements in a situation: when those above can no longer govern as they did before; when those below will not tolerate being oppressed as they were before; and when this double impossibility is expressed by a sudden effervescence of the masses”.11

Despite its impressive capacity to mobilise and its far-reaching anti-capitalist and indigenous-liberationist objectives, however, the left-indigenous bloc lacked a revolutionary party that might have provided the leadership, strategy and ideological coherence necessary to overthrow the existing capitalist state and rebuild a new sovereign power rooted in the self-governance of the overwhelmingly indigenous proletarian and peasant majority. As a consequence, the fallout of the extraordinary mobilisations and profound crisis of the state witnessed in 2000-5 was not a revolutionary transformation but a shift in popular politics from the streets and countryside to the electoral arena as elections were moved up to 18 December 2005.

Electoral sclerosis and missed opportunities

“When Morales entered office,” Forrest Hylton, one of the pre-eminent historians of modern Bolivia, has suggested, “the lowland right in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija was weak, divided and disorganised. Had Morales pressed his political weight to full advantage by mobilising the movements that brought him to power, he might have had the field to himself, much as Chávez has [in Venezuela].”

The approach actually adopted by the Morales government, however, was to limit any substantive confrontation with the economic power of the eastern lowland bourgeoisie, thus providing the oxygen for the right’s slow political rearticulation, and eventually its capacity to destabilise the Morales regime through extra-parliamentary street violence and racist thuggery. Over time the right obstructed the functioning of the Constituent Assembly
(2006-8), orchestrated a massacre of indigenous peasants (September 2008), and launched an unsuccessful coup attempt (October 2008). It is notable, however, that none of this destabilisation occurred on any significant scale until two years into the Morales administration. As Hylton points out:

between the time the Assembly was designed and concluded, the government showed its reluctance to rely on direct action from below and its willingness to make backroom concessions, to the right. As the massacre in Pando—the circumstances of which remain murky—demonstrated, in September 2008, such caution did not restrain the racist violence of the right, or prevent bloodshed, although the rightwing rampage may well have hastened the failed coup plot of October 2008, and the popular ratification of the new Constitution in January 2009.

Indeed, for Hylton, the Morales regime ultimately “gave the right an opening through which it reconstituted itself as the arbiter of the limits of social change”.12 Even as the Morales administration gifted the extreme right with an enviable opportunity for ascent, the latter managed to self-destruct soon after its rebirth. The massacre of peasants loyal to the government—carried out by right wing paramilitaries in the department of Pando in September 2008—morally repulsed most of Bolivian society, and the extreme articulations of the autonomist right wing of the lowland departments—Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija—suffered massively as a result.

But the weakened right nonetheless managed to sap the energies of the social left in 2008 and 2009. Despite numerous sectoral disputes with the government across many different economic sectors, the popular classes in 2008 and 2009 had been consumed by the battle against the proto-fascist forces of the right, and thus no independent political organisation to the left of Morales had even begun to take shape. It was precisely in this vacuum that Morales faced re-election.

On 6 December 2009 Evo Morales won a decisive mandate for a second term in office with an astonishing 64 percent of the popular vote. The turnout was close to 90 percent.13 This latest electoral victory marked the peak of a wave of successes in the polls, including 67 percent support for his administration in the recall referendum of 2008 and 61 percent approval of the new constitution in a popular referendum held on 25 January 2009.14

The December 2009 elections represented the most profound level of institutional consolidation in the apparatuses of the state for any political force in recent Bolivian memory. Morales is the first president in Bolivia to be re-elected in successive terms, and the first to win with a larger percentage of votes when elected for a second term.15 For the first time since the 1952 National Revolution a party won a massive majority and control of both houses of the legislature, providing the MAS with the power, among other things, to reconfigure the reactionary judiciary. The MAS controls 25 of 36 Senate seats, and 82 of 130 seats in the House of Deputies.16

Morales also made important gains in the departments of the media luna, the heartland of the country’s autonomist right wing in eastern Bolivia. In Tarija, Morales actually won a majority of votes, and in Beni, Pando and Santa Cruz he increased his support substantially. Most importantly in this regard, he won 41 percent of the popular vote in the department of Santa Cruz, the principal axis of the eastern bourgeois bloc.17 In the departmental elections for governors, mayors and departmental assemblies held on 4 April 2010, moreover, the tide continued to turn in favour of the MAS. Of the nine governorships, the MAS won six (Chuquisaca, La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí and Pando) and lost three to right wing oppositions (Tarija, Santa Cruz and Beni). This represented a significant shift from merely three MAS governorships (Chuquisaca, Potosí and Oruro) in the 2005 departmental elections. What is more, the race was tight in Tarija and Beni, and reasonably close in Santa Cruz.18

In the wake of this decisive victory, Morales embraced a fevered rhetoric of “communitarian socialism” at home, coupled with denunciations of capitalism as the principal enemy of nature abroad. It is unsurprising on one level, then, that confusion as to what Morales represents continues to run the gamut of the political spectrum.

Murky waters

“Bolivia’s indigenous-cum-socialist revolution in the high Andes has made the country a close ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and a natural friend of poncho-wearing well-wishers in the West,” writes John Paul Rathbone in the Financial Times. “At the same time, its almost Thatcherite approach to public finances, combined with soaring prices for its gas and mineral exports, has won it praise from the International Monetary Fund”.19 Leaning heavily on the first sentiment, while tirelessly ignoring the second reality, the most militant supporters of Morales on the international left have cleaved themselves to even the most romantic self-images of the government in La Paz.

“Bolivia’s economy [sic] policy has been ‘nationalised’ and is no longer dictated by the IMF or Washington,” Australian socialist Federico Fuentes argues. Furthermore, the Morales government has taken important “steps towards decolonising the state”, and there is “little doubt that the Bolivian masses are in a far superior position to where they were five or ten years ago”.20 For Fuentes, the Morales government represents “the broad aspirations of Bolivia’s indigenous majority”, and the official refrain issued from the Presidential Palace in La Paz—that this is a “government of social movements”—is to be taken literally: “Important advances have been made by the social movements precisely because they decided to move from resistance to power”.21 The popular classes are in the driver’s seat. But a steely, realistic tone is then assumed. Fuentes acknowledges that there is “still a long struggle ahead”. In one memorable passage he both falsely attributes to me the notion that socialism can be achieved in one miraculous moment, and then plants the equally fantastical idea, if only in implicit form here, that even if Bolivia is not yet socialist, it is on the long road in that direction: “Yet one feels that none of this will be enough for Webber who would prefer they abandon their route [to socialism?] in favour of an imaginary one in which socialism is installed overnight”.22

More surprising is that these views find an echo in recent interventions made by Canadian socialist intellectual and activist John Riddell.23 Riddell recognises that “Bolivia remains capitalist, and that a socialist transformation is not underway”, but insists that the country never entered into a revolutionary situation and that there were no prospects for a transition to socialism in 2000-5, nor are there any today or presumably in the foreseeable future. Imperialism and the domestic right amount to virtually insurmountable obstacles.

Thus, against a very low bar of expectations, we can celebrate “the real achievements, the gains [the government] has made against formidable odds”, and prioritise “support of Bolivia’s positive moves towards national sovereignty, social progress and effective action on global warming”. Symptomatically, for Riddell, as for Fuentes, social movements are embodied in, and expressed through, the government of the MAS: “Despite all strains, the tie between social movements in Bolivia and the Morales government has not been broken.” Pointing to what he understands to be my misreading of the political-economic terrain in this regard, Riddell writes, “Webber’s counterposition of the masses and the MAS leadership fails to acknowledge their close relationship”.24 Elsewhere, in a less-considered formulation, Riddell goes so far as to claim—albeit with a host of important caveats—that “the government of Bolivia headed by President Evo Morales can indeed be viewed as a ‘workers’ government’ of the type discussed by the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin and the Communist International (Comintern) in the early 1920s”.25

An appraisal of the TIPNIS conflict within the wider dynamics of racialised class struggle under a political economy that shares more continuity than change with the inherited neoliberal model should, I want to argue, undermine the basis of such views. If I am correct, it does not make sense to speak of the consistent clashes between popular classes and the state as “errors” committed by the Morales administrations, but rather as systematic expressions of the necessary class commitments daily reproduced by this administration as it administers the capitalist state. “The tradition of the oppressed”, Walter Benjamin notes, “teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule”.26

TIPNIS in context

Much of the debate around TIPNIS has been curiously ahistorical. One example of this problem is straightforwardly evident in the frequent claims that the lowland indigenous resistance march of 2011—however legitimate some of its concerns—was largely conducted in the interests of the “green imperialism” of Western environmental NGOs and a destabilisation campaign against Morales, run by elements of the domestic right and funded and directed by the US government.27 Unless we attribute divine foresight to US imperialists, the logic of such accounts is difficult to marry with the historical facts of mobilisations of lowland indigenous peoples that long predated the emergence of the MAS and Morales, and thus we are asked to forget they ever existed.

Most importantly, we are to disregard the recent precedent of 700 men and women, from largely the same indigenous groups involved in the 2011 conflict, marching 400 miles from Trinidad to La Paz in 1990. The “march for territory and dignity”, as it was called, gained massive popular support and, against the wishes of the neoliberal government of Jaime Paz Zamora, won legal recognition for TIPNIS as an indigenous territory.28 Another victory of the 1990 march was the establishment of a “red line”, after which point further settlement by commercial farmers, loggers and rich peasants seeking to accumulate more land for production would be prohibited, so as to maintain the capacity of predominantly non-capitalist indigenous communities inhabiting the area to reproduce their cultural, economic, environmental and spiritual ways of life.

Just as importantly, evocations of categories such as “indigenous”, “the masses”, “the people” and “the peasantry” are employed with abundance on all sides of the debate, with precious little empirical attention paid to the class interests associated directly or indirectly with “development” in TIPNIS. It makes sense to begin our discussion, therefore, by positioning the argument within the context of transformations in Bolivia’s rural class structure in recent decades.29

Rural class structure

At the outset of the 21st century the rural class structure in Bolivia is characterised
by a dramatic concentration of land in the hands of a few, on the one hand, and a sea of poor—often landless—peasants on the other. Haciendas (large landholdings) dominate 90 percent of Bolivia’s productive land, leaving only 10 percent divided between mostly-indigenous peasant communities and smallholding peasants.30 Roughly 400 individuals own 70 percent of productive land while there are 2.5 million landless peasants in a country with a total population of 9 million.31 Most of the peasants are indigenous, with 77 percent of rural inhabitants self-identifying as such in the 2001 census.32

Bolivia’s rural structure prior to the 1952 National Revolution was dominated by large landholdings in which “neo-feudal” social relations predominated, “based on established modes of colonial extraction and exploitation in the countryside”.33 As the nationalist-populist revolutionary process of 1952 unfolded, mass direct-action tactics and independent land occupations orchestrated by radicalised peasants in Cochabamba, La Paz and Oruro, and to a lesser extent in northern Potosí and Chuquisaca, challenged this rural class structure profoundly.34 The new revolutionary government of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR) was forced to enact the Agrarian Reform Law of 1953 in response to the pressure from below. Forced labour was made illegal and haciendas in the altiplano, or highlands, (La Paz, Oruro, Potosí) and the valleys (Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, Tarija) were divided and the land redistributed, creating a new smallholding peasantry in large sections of these departments.

The MNR, though, was never a socialist party. Its interests coincided with the radical peasants only insofar as the MNR saw the breakup of semi-feudal agrarian modes of production as a prerequisite for establishing and developing a dynamic capitalist agricultural sector with ample state support. The geographic fulcrum for capitalist agriculture in Bolivia became the eastern department of Santa Cruz, beginning shortly after the revolution. Santa Cruz was relatively uninhabited at the time of the revolution and was largely unaffected by the agrarian reform. Over the next several decades it became the most dynamic centre of capitalist agriculture in the country, producing cotton, coffee, sugar and timber for export; the department also spearheaded the reconcentration of land in the hands of a few that eventually spread again throughout much of the rest of the country, reversing, through complex legal and market mechanisms, many of the reforms achieved in the National Revolution.

With the onset of neoliberalism in the mid-1980s, the agro-industrial dominance of Santa Cruz was solidified. Bolivian neoliberalism emphasised the orientation of agriculture towards exports for external markets. Transnational corporations and large domestic agricultural enterprises based in Santa Cruz led this intensified insertion into the global economy. The traditional peasant economy was increasingly displaced in various parts of the country as large agro-industrial enterprises solidified control and focused increasingly on a few select commodities, soy in particular. In 1986,
77 percent of the total land area under cultivation was devoted to the production of cereals, fruit, vegetables and tubers in which small-scale peasant production predominated. By 2004, this area had been reduced to 48.2 percent. By one estimate, in 1963 peasant production represented 82.2 percent of the total value of agricultural production in the country, whereas by 2002 peasant production accounted for only 39.7 percent of total production, and agro-industrial capitalist production accounted for 60.3 percent of the total.35

Of the approximately 446,000 peasant production units remaining in the country today, 225,000 are located in the altiplano departments of La Paz, Oruro and Potosí, 164,000 in the valley departments of Cochabamba, Chuquisaca and Tarija, and only 57,000 in the eastern lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando. Capitalist relations of production now predominate in the eastern lowlands and are increasingly displacing small-scale peasant production in the valleys and altiplano although the latter continues to be the most important form of production in the altiplano.36 In the valley departments small and medium capitalist enterprises account for most of the agricultural sector. These departments play a significant role in ranching. They account for 60.3 percent of poultry production, 48 percent of pig farming and 18.5 percent of Bolivian cattle ranching. The rural altiplano, on the other hand, is still dominated by small-scale peasant producers and indigenous communities. This region accounts for only 19 percent of total cultivated land in Bolivia, and its contribution to national ranching is limited to the sheep and llama sectors.37

The rural population is diminishing throughout the country as processes of semi-proletarianisation and proletarianisation accelerate with the gradual extension of capitalist relations of production into all corners of the country. Beginning in the early 1970s, migrant labourers provided the workforce for sugarcane and cotton harvests while for the rest of the year they maintained small plots of their own land in the departments from which they primarily travelled—Cochabamba, Potosí and Chuquisaca. Between 1976 and 1996 the rural population as a proportion of the total population fell from 59 percent to 39 percent.38

This exodus has to do with two interrelated developments in the agricultural sector. On the one side, peasant production has been living through a prolonged crisis. Peasant families are increasingly unable to reproduce themselves and must supplement their farming income by selling their labour power, whether in the countryside or in the cities. In the altiplano small-scale peasant producers and indigenous communities are experiencing diminishing productive capacities of their soil, the division of land into smaller and smaller plots (minifundios) as families grow in size from generation to generation, the migration of young people to cities, and an acute absence of new technologies, making competition with foreign suppliers to the domestic Bolivian markets impossible.39 Meanwhile, in the dynamic centre of agro-capitalism in the eastern lowlands technical innovation and modernisation has led to more capital-intensive forms of agricultural production and consequently a paucity of employment opportunities even as industries expand.40

As capitalist social relations increase their reach the differentiation of the peasantry into rich, medium and poor peasants also intensifies. Survey data from 1988 suggested that 76 percent of peasantry were poor peasants, meaning they did not have the means to reproduce their family labour power based on the income generated from their land and were obliged to sell their labour power elsewhere on a temporary basis. Medium peasants constituted 11 percent of the peasantry when defined as peasant family units fundamentally based on family labour with the ability to reproduce that labour without selling their labour power elsewhere. Rich peasants—those who regularly made a profit after reproducing their family and their means of production, purchased the labour of poorer peasants, and utilised modern technology—constituted 13 percent of the peasantry.41 This process of differentiation within the peasantry has only accelerated since that time, with the transformation of some rich peasants into commercial farmers in specific regions of the altiplano and valley departments.42

Stratification of the peasantry and class dynamics

Under the government of Evo Morales, despite an uplifting discourse which valorises the poorest of peasants, actual agro-industrial production with fully capitalist social relations has expanded from 79 percent of total agricultural production in the country to 82 percent. Whereas in 2005-6 small-scale peasant production accounted for 25 percent of total production in the altiplano and valley regions, by 2008-9 this figure had dropped to 21.6 percent. While state support has been offered to agro-industrial soy producers and ranchers in the eastern lowlands, small-scale peasant production in the western highlands has been abandoned by the state.43

How are these wider rural class dynamics relevant to TIPNIS? The park encompasses 1,200,000 hectares of territory, the bulk of which is in the northern section, in the department of Beni. Northern TIPNIS is inhabited principally by three indigenous groups—the Mojeños-Trinitarios, the Chimanes and the Yuracarés. Southern TIPNIS, which borders the Chapare, a coca-producing region in the department of Cochabamba, is inhabited principally by Quechua and Aymara peasants—also known as colonizadores (colonisers)—who migrated to the area from the western altiplano in different waves since the 1970s.44

The MAS government maintains the position that the construction of the highway to run through TIPNIS was intended to benefit all inhabitants of the region, above and beyond any material interests specific to particular groups. “All sides in the dispute want greater development and improved access to basic services,” Fuentes writes, in an echo of the government’s line. “The issue at stake is how the second poorest country in the Americas, facing intense pressure from more powerful governments and corporate forces, can meet the needs of its people while protecting the environment”.45

A closer analysis, however, reveals the fact that certain groups would benefit from highway development at the expense of others. A zero-sum game developed, reflecting the usual growing class stratification within the peasantry under capitalist social relations, a process of differentiation mystified by pro-government, populist discourse that treats the peasantry as a homogeneous social class.

In particular, a significant and growing layer of the Aymara and Quechua peasants in the region can be classified as rich in the schema developed above—that is, they accrue profits as a direct result of surplus appropriation through the work of salaried labourers. As rich peasants they also have growing motivations for expanding accumulation through the expropriation of further land. Geographically, to one side, we find possibilities of expansion into the department of Santa Cruz. But this would imply incursions into the inhabited lands of other Aymara-Quechua migrant peasants, or the small, medium and large-scale capitalist agricultural and ranching expanses that make up the agro-industrial sector of that department. This is not something the MAS government has been willing to contemplate.

On the other side, that is, in TIPNIS to the north, we encounter the largely non-capitalist social relations of the Mojeños-Trinitarios, Chimanes and Yuracarés—that is, communities based on collective self-reproduction through small-scale agricultural activities, the extraction of forest resources, and artisanal production. Increasingly, layers of these indigenous communities are forced into semi-proletarian status through a process Marx called “primitive accumulation”,46 as they are compelled to sell their labour power for part of the year to ranchers, timber barons and the rich layer of the cocalero, or coca-growing, peasantry.47

As Guillermo Almeyra has perhaps understood better than anyone, the maintenance of an extractivist economy of natural resource extraction and capitalist agriculture geared towards export under the MAS government has necessarily meant repeated clashes with the hunger for land expressed by poor and landless peasants, as well as those indigenous communities rising up in defence of forests, natural resources, water and biodiversity.

Almeyra asks us to consider the legal and economic logic underpinning the current system that allows a few managers of a transnational mining or natural gas company operating in Bolivia today to gravely affect the environment of everyone without a care in the world, on the one hand, while 10,000 indigenous inhabitants of TIPNIS, with a non-capitalist mode of production, confront the full force of the law, and defamation by the government, when they seek to defend their values and ways of life against highway construction. This highway construction, far from being a neutral force for the “development” of all, would destroy the integrity of their territory, and would allow for the destruction of their norms and modes of living.48

Linking local class dynamics to Brazilian sub-imperialism

Such are the class dynamics at play on a local scale, but it would be a mistake to see this micro-rhythm as the only propeller behind the highway. The plan for road development is, in fact, one small part of a much more ambitious regional integration project driven by Brazilian capital and the Brazilian state, known as the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA). While opening up Bolivia’s northern savannah region to further capitalist expansion, the TIPNIS highway would also crucially provide an integral link in an international north east to south west trade corridor, allowing Brazilian commodities from the western expanses of that country to reach Pacific ports in northern Chile, via Bolivia.49

The details of the project were established on 4 August 2008, in an agreement signed by representatives of the Administradora Boliviana de Carreteras (Bolivian Administrator of Highways), the Brazilian construction company OAS, and the massive Brazilian development bank, the Banco Nacional de Desarrollo Económico y Social (BNDES). The price of construction was established at $415 million, 80 percent of which BNDES would provide to the Bolivian government as a loan, provided that a Brazilian company—ultimately OAS—be awarded the contract.50

Large swathes of Bolivian popular society have found more persuasive protesters’ accounts of the highway project, it seems, than the government’s crude equivocations concerning the “development” the highway would bring, as well as the by now all too familiar, and all too easy defamation of the marchers as manipulated tools, or useful idiots, of western NGOs, US imperialism and the domestic far-right.

More compelling to many have been the protesters’ understandings, rooted in a history of indigenous struggle for self-determination, as well as class analysis tied to the diametrically opposed interests of different social groups imbricated in the region’s dynamics. The interests of Brazilian sub-imperialism are almost self-evident. Domestically there are open alliances between government and agro-industrial soy producers in the eastern lowlands, particularly those in Santa Cruz, and financial capital, as expressed in the booming banking sector. These bourgeois groups have traditionally played an intermediary role in South American rhythms of capital accumulation, articulating with the wider interests of Brazilian sub-imperialism. Soy producers vehemently oppose authentic agrarian reform for obvious material reasons.

Meanwhile, as noted, within the increasingly class-stratified peasantry a rich layer of cocaleros, a central social component of the government’s rural base, has emerged with expansionary interests for coca production that could be satisfied in TIPNIS without encroaching on large landholdings through authentic agrarian reform elsewhere in the country. Poorer layers of the peasantry in TIPNIS, an amalgam of increasingly dispossessed indigenous communities, could serve as wage labour in coca production for richer peasants as they already have in larger numbers each year.

Moreover, the illegal activities of narco-trafficking and logging are not easily separable from the legal endeavours of finance, coca growing and agro-industry, not to mention construction and real estate, particularly in the cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, where dirty money is made clean. The narcos and timber barons, with ties to the state through various channels of corruption, are also in line to benefit from easier access in and through TIPNIS.

Finally, directly from the mouth of the minister of hydrocarbons and energy for the government of Evo Morales, we learned of the possibility of expansive hydrocarbon reserves within the TIPNIS region. Exploration for, and confirmation of, such riches would be vastly simplified with highway development and dispossession of uppity, partially non-capitalist indigenous social formations still presiding in the area.51 Thus any comprehensive understanding has to link the issue of TIPNIS development with the interests of petroleum multinationals, and consider the ties between these multinationals and the Bolivian state.

Assessing the politics of the TIPNIS march

It was out of this dynamic that a march of 65 days duration emerged, backed by 12 lowland and highland indigenous organisations, the most important of which were the lowland Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia and a highland organisation, CONAMAQ. This context helps to explain how the march was able to grow from 500 people at its outset to 2,500 people en route, with additional mass expressions of support in the form of thousands upon thousands taking to the streets in solidarity in the cities—including a general strike called for by the Bolivian Workers Central—in the wake of fierce repression of unarmed protesters on 25 September 2011.52 The campaign of defamation and violence orchestrated by the government ultimately proved unsuccessful. The popularity of the president plummeted. Ministers resigned. And the decision on the highway—ostensibly “non-negotiable” in August—was reversed by October.

It is true that there were opportunistic interventions by reactionary forces in the course of events, as is natural in any such scenario. We do not yet know the extent of US involvement or that of the far-right from the eastern lowlands. It is safe to assume, however, that they attempted infiltration. What is interesting, though, is that it appears from initial evidence that it was less the extreme right of the eastern lowlands that attempted to milk the conflict for all it was worth, than the centre-right, under the guise of the Movimiento Sin Miedo (Movement without Fear, MSM), erstwhile allies of the government. The MSM is the political vehicle of former La Paz mayor Juan del Granado. Granado is the first oppositional figure to emerge with even a remote hope of presenting a realistic electoral challenge to Morales.

It is also true that two of the 16 demands put forth by the TIPNIS march against the highway were deeply problematic in different ways—one endorsed the UN-Redd initiative (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which would essentially place the preservation of forests in the hands of foreign capital, and the other called for the total closure of natural gas extraction from Aguaragüe, from which 90 percent of the gas currently sold and consumed in Bolivia is extracted. But these demands can be criticised without refuting the central problematic of the struggle, its essentially just nature, and its overwhelming character as an expression of the self-organisation and self-activity of an oppressed and exploited people defending their life values against the imposition of the exchange value of capital.

This is a revolt in the revolutionary, rather than conservative, tradition of anti-capitalist romanticism. Michael Löwy has explained:

The central feature of industrial (bourgeois) civilisation that Romanticism criticises is the quantification of life, ie the total domination of (quantitative) exchange-value, of the cold calculation of price and profit, and the laws of the market, over the whole social fabric…the decline of all qualitative values—social, religious, ethical, cultural or aesthetic ones—the dissolution of all qualitative human bonds, the death of imagination and romance, the dull uniformisation of life, the purely “utilitarian”—ie quantitatively calculable—relation of human beings to one another, and to nature.53

For many of the TIPNIS marchers, their struggle for meaningful self-determination has been precisely one of defending their collective social, religious, ethical, cultural and aesthetic values against the dull advance of bourgeois industrialisation, taking the concrete form in this case of an expressway for Brazilian capital.

Leftists siding with the Bolivian state in this affair are comprehensible only insofar as they have embraced the linear developmentalist worldview of García Linera, captured most honestly in his 2006 theoretical formulation of “Andean-Amazonian Capitalism”. This text asserts the impossibility of establishing socialism in Bolivia for at least 50 to 100 years. Instead García Linera posits that Bolivia must first build an industrial capitalist base.

The capitalist model he envisions projects a greater role for state intervention in the market. The formula essentially means capitalist development with a stronger state to support a petty bourgeoisie which will eventually become a powerful national bourgeoisie to drive Bolivia into successful capitalist development. That national bourgeoisie will be indigenous, or “Andean-Amazonian”. Only after this long intermediary phase of industrial capitalism has matured will the fulfilment of socialism be materially plausible.54 Seen from the vantage point of Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, García Linera’s conceptualisation of history seems “fit to assign to the working class the role of redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength”. In so doing, it allows the working class to “forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren”. 55

As historian Brooke Larson writes, “Stories of [the Aymara indigenous hero] Tupac Katari’s six-month 1781 siege of La Paz still haunt the nightmares of its upper class inhabitants”.56 She might have added that, on the other side of the racialised class divide, these same stories have inspired contemporary indigenous radicals in their urban repertoires of insurrection and rural road blockading for much of the 21st century in Bolivia. Before Katari was drawn and quartered for his role in the 1781 revolt he warned the colonialists that he would “return as millions”, and the protagonists of recent rebellions see themselves as the embodiment of this return. They are, in a sense, more nourished by his image as enslaved ancestor than they are persuaded by a utopian industrial liberation, a century into the future.

As the Argentinian political economist Claudio Katz reminds us, “It is evident that the impediments to developing a competitive capitalist system in countries such as Bolivia are at least as great as the obstacles to initiating socialist transformations”.57 Fernando Molina, a neoliberal critic of the MAS, has correctly pointed out that in many respects Andean-Amazonian capitalism closely resembles the old line of the Stalinist Partido Comunista Boliviana (Bolivian Communist Party, PCB), which stressed the necessity of a “revolution by stages”: feudalism to capitalism (bourgeois), and eventually capitalism to communism (communist).58

Continuities in political economy

Recent scholarly literature has begun to demonstrate the very limited nature of the changes that have taken place under Morales. For example, Kenneth M Roberts and Steven Levitsky, two dominant figures in American political science, from Cornell and Harvard respectively, recently situated Bolivia’s economic policies, alongside those of Argentina and Ecuador, in a “heterodox” camp between the “orthodox” free market policies of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Peru, and the “statist” policies of Venezuela.59

In the same edited volume Raúl Madrid points out that while the Bolivian government frequently engages in “radical, even incendiary, rhetoric” its “economic and social policies…have not represented a dramatic break with the past”.60 “Despite its period criticisms of capitalism,” Madrid argues, “the government has not sought to carry out a transition to socialism or change the existing pattern of development,” an argument substantiated by the fact that the economy remains “focused largely on the export of natural resources”, under the control of foreign capital, and that “the government has largely respected private property and has sought to encourage private investment”.61 The government has “eschewed radicalism in social policy as well, focusing instead on deepening or broadening policies that were enacted by previous governments”, while in the area of agrarian reform, the government’s “initiative, which it enacted in 2006 after protracted struggle in the Senate, is largely in keeping with the land reform principles laid down in the Sánchez de Lozada administration’s 1996 land reform measure”.62

Roberto Laserna, a prominent academic advocate of neoliberalism in Bolivia, poses a question: “What has changed in the last few years?” His answer: “A lot, if one observes the process in terms of its discourses and symbols and maintains a short-term perspective. But very little if one is attentive to structural conditions and observes the economic and social tendencies with a longer-term view”.63

“New economic policies have not signalled a dramatic shift towards a new economic model,” write Amy Kennemore and Gregory Weeks of Bolivia and Ecuador in recent years, “but rather a pragmatic way for centre-left governments to better capture capitalist surplus in the exploitation of natural resources”.64 “The Morales government has gone to enormous effort to demonstrate that it guarantees private property,” writes the critical Bolivian anthropologist Pablo Regalsky, “while at the same time seeking to maintain its social base”.65

Even in the domain of hydrocarbon (natural gas and oil) policy, where there is little dispute that the most far-reaching reforms have occurred under Morales, the early Marxist critiques of the “nationalisation” of 2006 have now been more widely acknowledged as essentially correct. For example, geographer Brent Z Kaup recently called it a “neoliberal nationalisation”. In a certain superficial sense “it technically returned physical control of Bolivia’s natural gas to the state”, but “the space opened up for private investment in the hydrocarbon sector in the 1980s and 1990s still exists. Transnational firms still extract the majority of Bolivia’s natural gas, and most of it is still sent to more profitable export markets”.66

It should not be surprising that the latest reports on Bolivia by the International Monetary Fund, released earlier this year, are full of praise for Bolivia’s “solid macroeconomic performance in recent years”, rooted in “prudent macroeconomic policies”, garnering “record-high net international reserves” for the Bolivian state.67 After IMF officials met with Bolivian state managers, the former group happily reported that the latter were “keen to keep macroeconomic equilibrium”.68

Another IMF report this year raises further doubt as regards Fuentes’s claims that economic policy has been “nationalised” under Morales. In 2009, the document notes, IMF authorities met with Bolivian managers and “praised the Bolivian authorities for their sound macroeconomic management”, but also advised the government to engage in the “gradual withdrawal of fuel subsidies”.69 The report goes on to explain that “the authorities attempted to eliminate fuel subsidies upfront [in December 2010], but this measure was reversed in the face of social unrest”.70 What the IMF is referring to here is the government’s attempt to eliminate fuel subsidies late last year in line with IMF requests, and the concomitant explosion of popular protest—the gasolinazo—that rippled through the major cities of the country, forcing the government ultimately to back down. The Morales administration remains to this day determined to reintroduce some version of the legislation that would abolish the subsidies.71

The World Bank also praises Bolivia’s macroeconomic management. Representatives of the bank have been meeting with state managers throughout 2011 in preparation for the drafting of a Country Partnership Strategy that will guide the bank’s activities in the country for the 2012-15 period. Thus far the bank has 13 active investment projects in Bolivia, totalling a commitment of just under $445 million.72

New currents of radical social theory

“In recent months”, the Economist Intelligence Unit reported in September of this year, “MAS supporters have become more aware of the breach between the revolutionary populist-socialist discourse of the president, Evo Morales, and his government’s more pragmatic policy course”.73

An important reflection of this appeared in the form of a Collective Manifesto released in June, which was signed by former MAS officials, leading social movement activists and radical intellectuals.74 “Today the large majority of our people basically find themselves in the same situation of poverty, precariousness and anguish in which they have always been”, the Manifesto reads. “It would seem that those who have improved are those that had always been well: the bankers, transnational oil and mining companies, the smugglers and the narco-traffickers”.75

“The continuity of political party clientelism and extractive, export-oriented development”, Forrest Hylton points out, “is the most remarkable feature of the new order—the liberal capitalist model, albeit one slightly modified in favour of national development, has survived. By Bolivian standards, it could even said to be thriving.” Indeed, for Hylton, “it is difficult to conceive of any government channelling revolutionary dynamism into reformist sclerosis more effectively than the Bolivian government’s enthusiasm for mining and resource extraction”.76

Likewise, for Mexican radical Raquel Gutiérrez—who lived in Bolivia between 1984 and 2001 and spent five of those years in jail as a political prisoner: “Evo has…led the reconstruction of the state along liberal-capitalist lines as dictated by the World Bank… It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the policies imposed by this so-called progressive government and those followed by previous neoliberal governments; the rhetoric is different, but the results are largely the same. With resources extraction so central to the financial stability of the government, people and environments are simply expendable. Only disaster can emerge from this”.77


According to John Riddell, “Webber and others who agree with him are measuring the Bolivian government against an impossible standard, against the ideal programme of a hypothetical mass socialist movement”.78 However, Riddell, like Fuentes, can offer no reasonable response to the Morales regime’s ongoing commitment to fiscal austerity, low inflationary growth, central bank independence, labour market “flexibility”, inconsequential agrarian reform—even the expansion of capitalist social relations in the countryside, vast accumulation of international reserves, low social spending, alliances with transnational capital across all sectors of the economy—but particularly their dominance in natural resource extraction, export-oriented capitalism premised on low-wage flexible labour, documented increases in rates of exploitation of the working class, and state investment amounting to only 32 percent of total investment, with a maximum official goal of 36 percent.79 Riddell’s argument, although more sophisticated in a theoretical sense than that of Fuentes, ultimately ends up sounding dangerously close to a revised version of TINA: there is no alternative.

If one points to the real trends and contradictions in Bolivia’s political economy, even after explicitly calling for opposition to any and all imperialist intervention—direct or indirect, overt or covert—as I have repeatedly and at length in various writings, one is likely to receive a sharp reminder from the likes of Fuentes: “Our role is not to tell the Bolivian masses from afar that they are doing it all wrong or that their process is not revolutionary enough; our priority must be to defend the gains of the Bolivian process and help to create the necessary space for its continued advance”.80

The implied lesson here—it is not sufficient for activists and intellectuals in the Global North to condemn and fight the imperialism of our governments; we must also close our eyes to contradiction, shut our mouths, and play the role of Evo’s loyal soldiers abroad. International working class solidarity, on this view, means parroting the communiqués of the presidential palace in La Paz and aligning ourselves with Bolivian embassies in our countries. The palace and the embassy almost become the Bolivian masses. We must observe a stern silence as regards explosions of independent working class, peasant and indigenous resistance against the impositions of a reconstituted neoliberalism in Bolivia. Better still, when faced with a struggle like that in TIPNIS, we ought to tip our hats to their legitimate demands, while portraying the movement as largely a
by-product of “green imperialism”. The endogenous linear developmentalism of García Linera’s Andean-Amazonian strategy—a veritable green light for the steamrolling of TIPNIS—is magically eclipsed in this view.

“Our consideration”, Benjamin suggests in a useful contradistinction to Fuentes, “proceeds from the insight that the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their ‘mass basis’, and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.” For Benjamin, our consideration, as historical materialists, “seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere”.81

The first priority of activists in the Global North, who are not persuaded in the least by the antiquated directives issued forth by the likes of Fuentes, should continue to be to oppose imperialist intervention of any sort in the determination of the Bolivian process. This means, concretely, opposition under any circumstances to imperialist-backed destabilisation campaigns against Morales. But the political situation is too complicated to end our discussion at that stage. Our first allegiance ought to be with the exploited and oppressed themselves, rather than any leaders or governments who purport to speak in their name in an uncomplicated way. This is as true of the TIPNIS struggle of 2011 as it was of the miners’ struggles of 2006 in Colquiri, the popular urban revolts against a right wing governor in Cochabamba in late 2006 and early 2007, the strikes of miners, teachers and healthcare workers in May 2010, the general strike in the department of Potosí in August 2010, the peasant, worker and community challenge to Japanese mining capital in 2010 at the San Cristóbal mine, and the popular rebellions against the elimination of fuel subsidies in December last year. The hope for Bolivia’s future remains with the overwhelmingly indigenous rural and urban popular classes, organising and struggling independently for themselves, against combined capitalist exploitation and racial oppression, with visions of simultaneous indigenous liberation and socialist emancipation, as we witnessed on a grand scale between 2000 and 2005.


1: Walter Benjamin, quoted in Löwy, 2006, pp66-67.

2: Thanks to Alex Callinicos and Sarah Hines for suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.

3: Página Siete, 3 November 2011.

4: Página Siete, 20 October 2011.

5: The Pact of Unity, established in 2004, pre-dated the formation of the MAS government.

6: Página Siete, 7 November 2011.

7: See García Linera, 2011.

8: Colectivo Manifiesto 22 de Junio, 2011, p286.

9: Webber, 2011a.

10: García Linera, 2006a, pp73-85.

11: Bensaïd, 2002.

12: Hylton, 2011, p245.

13: Economist, 10 December 2009.

14: See Stefanoni, 2010, pp4-17; Rossell, 2011, pp23-32.

15: Borón, 2009.

16: Rojas, 2009.

17: Stefanoni, 2010, pp4-5. For a discussion of the origins and trajectory of the eastern bourgeois bloc, see Webber, 2010.

18: Corte Nacional Electoral, 2010. For the April 2010 departmental elections, the position historically known as “prefect” was changed to “governor”.

19: Rathbone, 2010.

20: Fuentes, 2011a.

21: Fuentes, 2011b; Webber, 2011b.

22: Fuentes, 2011a.

23: In addition to the earlier translation and editing of seven volumes of documents of the Communist movement in the era of the Russian Revolution, Riddell has just completed the mammoth translation and editorial introduction of Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Brill, 2011). His writings on Bolivia, however, do not reveal a similar commitment to careful scholarship or precision, relying narrowly as they do on selective readings from the oeuvre of Federico Fuentes, Álvaro García Linera and the authorised biographer of Evo Morales, Martín Sivak. Riddell nonetheless also engages in a comradely and thoughtful critique of some of my recent articles and writings. My book From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia appears in the references, but the content of Riddell’s critique does not suggest a close reading of that text. See Riddell, 2011a.

24: Riddell, 2011a.

25: Riddell, 2011b.

26: Benjamin, 1999 [1940], p248.

27: These are roughly the unsubstantiated assertions made-with different emphases in different moments-by the Morales government and sympathetic journalists and analysts over the course of the conflict. In English, one example of this genre is Fuentes, 2011c. It is at least curious to note-given the government’s claims of an active conspiracy behind the march-that very shortly after the seeming resolution of the TIPNIS conflict, the Morales administration normalised relations with the US after three years of dispute. See Página Siete, 13 November 2011.

28: See Albó, 1996. Ironically, one of the best-sympathetic, even celebratory-accounts of the march can be found in a book co-authored by the vice-president. See García Linera, Chávez León and Costas Monje, 2006.

29: My discussion here draws upon Webber, 2011c, pp26-30.

30: Chávez and García Linera, 2005.

31: Enzinna, 2007, p 217.

32: Romero Bonifaz, 2005, p40.

33: Hylton and Thomson, 2007, p59.

34: Dunkerley, 1984, p67.

35: Ormachea Saavedra, 2007, pp29-32.

36: Ormachea Saavedra, 2007, p33.

37: Ormachea Saavedra, 2007, p34.

38: Pacheco Balanza and Ormachea Saavedra, 2000, p9.

39: Pacheco Balanza and Ormachea Saavedra, 2000, p19.

40: Pacheco Balanza and Ormachea Saavedra, 2000, pp31-32.

41: Ormachea Saavedra, 2007, pp27-28.

42: Ormachea Saavedra, 2007, p28.

43: Ormachea Saavedra, 2011a.

44: For the most lucid account of the region of which I am aware, see Orozco Ramírez, García Linera, and Stefanoni, 2006, pp29-117. Ironically, the title of the book translates as, “We are the playthings of nobody”, a notion that does not square well with García Linera’s position today, that they are indeed the playthings of imperialism, NGOs and the domestic right.

45: Fuentes, 2011c.

46: See part eight of Marx, 1977.

47: Ormachea Saavedra, 2011b.

48: Almeyra, 2011.

49: EIU, 2011, p 11.

50: Página Siete, 20 October 2011. For an interesting theorisation and empirical discussion of Brazilian sub-imperialism in South America, see Flynn, 2007, pp9-27.

51: For a brief sketch of some of these material interests in TIPNIS development, see Prada Alcoreza, 2011.

52: Página Siete, 20 October, 2011.

53: Löwy, 1987, p892.

54: García Linera, 2006b.

55: Benjamin, 1999 [1940], p252.

56: Larson 2004, p204.

57: Larson, 2004, p28.

58: Molina, 2006, p127.

59: Levitsky and Roberts, 2011.

60: Madrid, 2011, p240.

61: Madrid, 2011, p248.

62: Madrid, 2011, pp249-250.

63: Quoted in Robinson, 2011.

64: Kennemore and Weeks, 2011, p278.

65: Regalsky, 2010, p48.

66: Kaup, 2010, p135.

67: IMF, 2011a.

68: IMF, 2011a.

69: IMF, 2011b.

70: IMF, 2011b.

71: Página Siete, 12 November, 2011.

72: World Bank, 2011.

73: EIU, 2011, p10.

74: Colectivo Manifiesto 22 de Junio, 2011, pp285-293.

75: Colectivo Manifiesto 22 de Junio, 2011, p286.

76: Hylton, 2011, p244.

77: Gutiérrez, 2011, p277.

78: Riddell, 2011a.

79: See Webber, 2011c.

80: Fuentes, 2011b.

81: Benjamin, 1999 [1940], p250.


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