Morales and the Bolivian state

Issue: 112

Crawford Spence and Mark Shenkin

The following article explores the tentative development of a new form of political organisation in Bolivia, as it emerged after Evo Morales’s victory in the presidential elections of December 2005. Drawing on existing research and extensive interviews conducted in Bolivia over the period July-September 2006, it theorises the underlying conception of the state that exists in the new administration, including the various dynamic relations between the state apparatus and the large body of social and indigenous movements. It questions whether what is developing in Bolivia truly holds the potential to result in a radically new form of grassroots governance or whether the rhetoric of the government only serves to conceal what is really just another brand of centralised and authoritarian political decision-making.

A ‘revolutionary epoch’

For little over 20 years following the passing of Decreto Supremo 21060,1 representative democracy in Bolivia was dominated by the Washington Consensus. By the turn of the century this grand policy of market liberalisation was culminating in crisis after crisis. The frequent replacement of government administrations did little to placate an increasingly mobile and organised populace. What was being called into crisis was not just the neo-liberal orientation of the various administrations, but the very function of the republican state itself. On 18 December 2005 the election of Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) signalled an end to the neo-liberal orientation. His vice-president, Àlvaro García Linera, sociologist, suggests that what Bolivia has been experiencing is what Marx termed a ‘revolutionary epoch’—a concept used to understand:

historical periods of dizzying political change—abrupt shifts in the position and power of social forces, repeated state crises, recomposition of collective identities, repeated waves of social rebellion—separated by periods of relative stability during which the modification, partial or total, of the general structures of political domination nevertheless remain in question.2

It is only now, after more than six months in office and with the contours of Evo Morales’s presidency defined in more concrete terms, that one can begin to make inferences as to the real characteristics of this period of change. The tsunami-like rise to power of Evo Morales since 2002 is both complex and contingent on a number of specific historical events; not only the intense mobilisation of the people (among whom Morales only relatively recently emerged as the obvious leader), but also the crises in the traditional political parties who increasingly failed to encounter ideological influence among the people.3 Throughout the period of Morales’s rise to power, his political discourse moved beyond that of ‘coca’ and quickly came to incorporate the diversity of demands of the social movements: the nationalisation of hydrocarbon resources, the rejection of neo-liberalism and, most importantly, the creation of a prominent indigenous platform.

There is no doubt that this government is radically different from anything that Bolivia has ever seen. MAS itself has never been a traditional political party, but a coalition of social movements. Now that they are in power, the relations between the government and the social movements remain strong. As Isaac Avaloz, head of the Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (Bolivian Union of Rural Workers), points out, ‘Never before have previous governments consulted us. Now we have meetings with ministers all the time’.4 This could be explained by the fact that the government itself is populated by ex-union and campesino leaders, former guerrillas and activists. There are few traces of career politicians. Yet the appointment of such personalities was arguably an example of political opportunism. Many ministers continue to operate as technical advisers rather than conforming to the Gramscian concept of ‘organic intellectual’.5

Regardless of the individuals who constitute its workings, the bounds of the republican state can only be pushed so far. As Mike Gonzalez predicted (in issue 108 of this journal), the election of Morales would result in a protection of the structures and functions of the state at the expense of more revolutionary forms of government. This is indeed the scenario which appears to be developing. The government routinely consults and listens to the demands of the social movements, sometimes with an almost obsessive fervour. Yet while this demonstration of institutional accountability is refreshing in comparison to the traditional bourgeois model of the state (as an entity accountable primarily to capital), it is also limited in its outlook. In the absence of a direct relation between the government and the people, the social movements serve as a mediator. Decisions continue to be made centrally. It could be argued that what is being created is a form of syndicalist corporatism rather than a self-determining mass movement from below.

The contrast lies in the rhetoric of the Bolivian government, a rhetoric that routinely points to the need to redefine and decentralise the colonial state. A far cry from the self-loathing of neo-liberal governments determined to pass all power to the market, the Bolivian administration claims that it wants to pass power to the people. Its primary means of doing this is through the new constitutional assembly, inaugurated on 6 August 2006. This assembly was a cornerstone of MAS’s electoral campaign and a clear demand of indigenous organisations since the early 1990s. The people have elected 255 asambleistas who will spend the next year and a half rewriting the constitution. MAS sees this, among other things, as the means to transcend the limitations of the colonial state. What could be implied is that MAS’s electoral victory, while itself to an extent indicative of their acceptance of existing institutional structures, was merely a step on the way to the initiation of a process that could well result in the spectacular self-destruction of the colonial state and its replacement with more endogenous forms of governance.
If the assembly remains truly an open process, this possibility certainly presents itself.

However, one of the concessions made by the government to the traditional political parties was to ensure that each asambleista defined their allegiance to a specific political party. The existence of party lines may serve to temper the radicalism of the new constitution. Indeed, in spite of MAS’s strong rhetoric against the colonial state, it would appear that they do not wish the power of decision-making to be taken away from the executive, but simply would like to ensure that centralised decisions continue to be influenced by a sufficient dynamism from the social movements.6 Indeed, the ideology of MAS has never been primarily socialist, in spite of what their name may suggest.

Indigenista ideology

Before analysing the most prominent of the government’s reforms, the ideological context within which these reforms have been formulated must be understood. ‘Movimiento al Socialismo’ would appear to be a fairly large misnomer. The social movements at the forefront of the mobilisations of recent years have been those constructed around campesino (indigenous rural workers) organisations and the indigenous populations of the Altiplano.7 The industrial workers’ movement in Bolivia lacks organisation and direction and is nothing like as strong as it was in the early 1950s. This could explain why the government’s main focus is on the historically marginalised and oppressed indigenous population rather than traditional working class or proletariat structures. In a recent interview in La Razòn the vice-president and theoretical spokesperson of the government pointed this out quite clearly:

MAS holds an ideology composed of various sources the central one of which, without doubt, is indianismo, defending the right to self-determination of the indigenous peoples… Marxism is not a source but more of a reference point for some people and inside the structure of the government it is a strong tool of understanding and ordering reality… It is a small current but it is present.8

The criterion for where to direct government policy is driven less by a traditional notion of class and more by a diverse notion of ethnicity. What we are seeing is the organised construction of a popular-indigenista hegemony. The populist nature of this hegemony is evidenced in the fact that the demands of the Aymara and Quechua indigenous peoples are regularly addressed in government rhetoric. Although there are 36 different peoples and languages in Bolivia, it is these two majority indigenous groups that have been at the forefront of the mobilisations of recent years. The less vocal minority indigenous groups receive less attention, if any, from the Aymaran president.

In one respect, the president has made much out of comparisons with the apartheid era in South Africa, pointing out that only 50 years in the past indigenous peoples were not allowed in government buildings. While this policy of systematic discrimination is now being dramatically changed, the indigenista ideology in itself is limited. As with South Africa and other nationalist revolutions, there is the danger that the changes taking place will be of form rather than content. That is, the current elite in the country may now be permeated by those with a different skin colour and cultural background but the centralisation of power and the economic stratification of society will continue largely unimpeded.

There are therefore broadly two paths open to Bolivia at the moment. The first is an increasing dialectic between the government and the (mostly indigenous) social movements, further grounding the corporatist structures that have begun to emerge. The second is that this corporatism is merely a staging post on the way to a more revolutionary dialectic between the state and the multitude. While the latter option is questionable as a delineation of the government’s primary intentions, their attempts to reconstruct the state do not lie entirely in their own hands. The social movements and the people generally have given Morales some time and breathing space to deliver a ‘government of the people’, yet many of them are mindful of the need to control this government and ensure that their demands are dealt with. The increased democratisation that is taking place in Bolivia offers opportunities to the Bolivian people to go beyond the government’s own vision of a more accountable, yet still centralised state.

The actions of MAS since coming to power have gone some way to re-establish the legitimacy of the republican state and therefore have worked counter to more revolutionary processes. Yet the new constitutional assembly, along with the increased participation of the social movements, albeit in a corporatist fashion, has created fissures in the historic bloc. These fissures could be exploited by those with a more profound vision of how to reconstruct society. Thus, whether MAS intends it or not, the conditions for a more revolutionary form of government may well be under construction. These changes depend on the organisation and consciousness of the people and their ability to mobilise themselves around a common ideology that is not handed down by the government. Indeed, the government’s grounding of this so-called ‘revolutionary epoch’ and its potential effect on the consciousness and political will of the people can be inferred from two simultaneous forms of analysis: analysis of the reforms that have actually taken place; and analysis of the rhetorical way in which these reforms are projected by the government. Two of the most important threads of reform are those that relate, respectively, to the nationalisation of the oil and gas industry and the start of a radical process of agrarian reform.


The pervasive role of the Bolivian state is evident in its proposed nationalisation of the hydrocarbon industry. Nationalisation itself is a misnomer given that the government rhetoric surrounding sovereignty and control of natural resources is at odds with what is actually taking place (see also issue 111 of this journal), which amounts to a renegotiation of contracts rather than full nationalisation. Fifty one percent of the assets will be owned and controlled by YPFB9 and the Bolivian share of revenues will increase. The international hydrocarbons community is not quaking in its boots, and no multinational corporation appears to be making plans to leave Bolivia. Indeed, the government is actively encouraging inward investment from foreign companies and has upwardly renegotiated export prices with countries such as Argentina and Brazil, tempering any potentially negative impact on company profits that might result from the nationalisation.

The nationalisation of hydrocarbons exemplifies well the government’s long term plan for the country, and the role of the state in particular. The particulars of the nationalisation programme (as far as one can make out—the government has been heavy on rhetoric and frustratingly short on detail) give a strong indication of state capitalism. What is implied is that a strengthened state will be the main arbiter and controller of productive resources. At the same time, a strong state, with control over resources, is seen as the means to develop communitarianism. For example, the economic benefits of the industrialisation of gas10 are to be fed into communities whose own forms of mercantilism will supposedly be sustained and developed endogenously by this new economic boom. Such policies form the backbone of what the government has routinely referred to as ‘Andean-Amazonian capitalism’—an attempt to control the financial power of capital in ways which permit community self-determination.

Whether capitalism can be controlled in order to respect the diversity of communities in Bolivia or whether it will homogenise all in its path will only become apparent in time. Such a strategy appears both risky and contradictory, given that it entails making compromises and giving concessions to established economic elites.

Nevertheless, the nationalisation is not countering significant opposition from among the social movements. They appear to have accepted the government line that Bolivia has indeed recuperated sovereignty over its natural resources. This could possibly be explained by the fact that the majority of social movements in Bolivia have a reformist orientation. Given the fragmentary and marginalised position of the traditional Bolivian workers’ movement, the difference between ‘radicals’ and ‘moderates’ in Bolivia no longer marks a battle between socialism and capitalism. Rather, the difference between moderates and radicals is best understood by reference to how radical the nationalisation of hydrocarbons should be.11 The demands of more radical groups still culminate in a version of state capitalism where the state is the main conduit of resource allocation and the controller of production. As such, the government’s rhetoric has found broad ideological consent. The curious marriage between communitarianism and global capital seems to be one that will proceed for the foreseeable future.

The land question and regional autonomy

The communitarianism element of government discourse is fused with notions of indigenous self-identity and self-determination, with respect being given to the habits and customs of the different communities that exist in Bolivia. Recently, this historical discourse on ‘autonomy’ has been met by another, more modern form of autonomy that is not based around habits and customs but on the decentralisation of power to each of the nine regions of the country. The modern discourse has been driven largely by the elite of Santa Cruz and Tarija, who see their vast economic resources as under threat from the current government. A referendum in July—a government concession to the latifundistas—saw four of the nine departments vote for regional autonomy in principle. While the details of this autonomy have yet to be worked out, the stage has been set for a conflict between central government and the department of Santa Cruz, in particular around the issue of land.

The recent agrarian reform, actually dubbed the ‘agrarian revolution’, sets out the government plan to redistribute primarily government lands to landless peasants, and to those with insufficient land. Beyond this, there is also a proposed modification to the existing INRA12 law which would open the door to expropriation of private land that is currently economically unproductive. It is this modification that is seen as the biggest threat to the latifundistas. Morales considers land redistribution to be a moral right of the Bolivian people and has called on the social movements to force the closure of parliament if this law is not passed.

Notwithstanding the fact that this whole process is being painstakingly fed through current institutions before it is enacted, the proposal is actually a modest one. By focusing only on economically unproductive land, it does not directly challenge the power of the agribusiness elements of the latifundistas, only the large swathes of land that they have historically accumulated and which they hold in reserve. Indeed, the proposal is only a slight modification of that which was proposed by the previous decrees of the Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa governments. It also follows World Bank logic in that the land will be purchased and made available to indigenous groups through credit, who will then be under pressure to present economically viable projects. This would hardly respect the habits and customs of the Andean and Amazonian communities in Bolivia so much as it would bring more elements of Bolivian society under the shadow of the market.

Similar types of land projects have been undertaken in Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil. The results were painful; many peasants became so indebted that they had to give up their land at the same time as the landowners made good business by selling off their poorest parcels.13 Thus the ‘agrarian revolution’ represents another example of a government reform strangled by the constraints of a republican state which demands continuity with previous decrees and adherence to time-consuming and cumbersome legislative processes. As with the nationalisation, the masses appear to be riding on the wave of euphoria that accompanies government rhetoric. There is a limited counter-discourse to the ‘agrarian revolution’ from below. Rather, the social movements are leading the way in supporting Morales in his quest to push through the modification to the existing INRA law.


On the whole it appears that the Bolivian government to this day maintains a conception of a centralised state, albeit a state now accountable to the social movements and with potentially more flexibility and access by way of a rewritten constitution. The reforms enacted by Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo in the first six months of its presidency represent, on the whole, a ‘democratisation’ of the structure of the state. Many of the government reforms represent increased access to wealth, land and education for historically marginalised peoples. They reflect and promote increased participation in political affairs. They potentialise a growth in political consciousness and an increase in the capacity for accountability. However, while what has been produced is arguably ‘better’ than what was before, what we are not seeing is an altogether different structure of power.

Likewise the economic reforms taking place in Bolivia reflect more of a democratisation of capitalism and less of a strong movement towards socialism. Whether or not this ‘Andean-Amazonian capitalism’ is really a staging post towards socialism will depend more on the people than it will on a government currently increasing its role as arbiter and controller of productive processes. With baited breath the people support Morales. There are general expectations that his rhetoric around a society characterised by equality and justice will indeed materialise, that people will be lifted out of poverty and that development will ensue. It is this rhetoric that has succeeded in displacing, for the time being, the more profound ideological questioning of the very concept of the state in Bolivia.

What is worrying is that as the government continues on this divided path, with its feet between the camps of global capital and indigenous communitarianism, the expectations of the people may never be fully met. It is crucial to note that the proposal of a new ideological route, if it continues to be articulated and effected by way of a republican state, will always be limited in its ability to respond to the demands of the people. Neither is it a historical inevitability that the people will recognise the limitations of the republican state. The danger is that the next crisis in Bolivian politics, like many previous ones, will simply be mystified into inexistence by another change in personnel. The challenge that remains is for the fragmented left of Bolivia to articulate the need for a change in the very form of politics and not merely in their content.


1: The now infamous government decree which signalled Bolivia’s embrace of neo-liberalism.
2: A Garcia Linera, New Left Review 37, January/February 2006.
3: P Stefanoni and H Do Alto, Evo Morales, de la Coca al Palacio: Una Oportunidad para la Izquierda Indígena (Malatesta, 2006).
4: Personal interview, 24 July 2006.
5: P Stefanoni and H Do Alto, as above, p90.
6: A Garcìa Linera, Pagina/12, 23 February 2006 (in P Stefanoni and H Do Alto, as above, p91).
7: The Andean region in the west of Bolivia which is populated predominantly by Aymara and Quechua peoples.
8: La Razòn, 7 August 2006.
9: Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos is the state hydrocarbon company which was capitalised in 1996, placing sovereignty of all of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons in the hands of just 12 multinational corporations. It is now being reinvigorated as part of the nationalisation.
10: Hydrocarbons have long been exploited in Bolivia but not industrialised. This has meant that much of the value of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon wealth has been enjoyed by other countries who have developed the means of processing gas and petrol. It has also increased Bolivia’s economic dependency on other nations (see, for example, R Gonzalez Pelaez, Renacionalización: Travesía hacia la Era Boliviana de los Hidrocarburos (Santa Cruz, 2005)).
11: P Stefanoni and H Do Alto, as above.
12: Neo-liberal land law elaborated and developed by the Sanchez de Lozada government which, among other things, further entrenched the property rights of latifundistas.
13: Alerta Laboral 45 (July 2006), Centro de estudios para el desarrollo laboral y agrario (CEDLA).