Competing narratives and social blocs
Mr President, from the bottom of our hearts and with great sadness we ask: Where did you get lost? Why don’t you live within the ancestral beliefs that says we should respect the muyu (circle): that we should govern only once? Why have you sold off our Pachamama? Why did you have the Chiquitania burned? Why did you so mistreat our Indigenous brothers in Chaparina and Tariquia?
(Qhara Qhara manifesto, cited in Zibechi 2020: 30)
The sentiment of the Qhara Qhara manifesto is one often repeated by indigenous groups across Bolivia: a sense that Evo Morales was an indigenous president (or at least their representative) who had a chance to break with the previous colonial and neoliberal forms of government, and somewhere along the way, he got lost. In fact, during fieldwork between January 2016 and May 2017, very few social organisation leaders or activists 1 spoke to were critical of Morales himself, despite their despair at (and, at times, loathing of) his government. The reasons for this are complex, but here I want to suggest that following the five-year cycle of social movements against neoliberalism at the start of the millennium, a moment of political opportunity opened, when there was a general receptiveness to new political ideas and to change amongst the general population. For many Bolivians, brother Evo was finally a representative in power who was one of them. The 60-plus per cent of Bolivians who turned out to vote for Morales in the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections believed in the political ideas underpinning his government: plurinationalism, vivir bien and ‘process of change’. As the latter suggests, people wanted change, and it was the ripples of these affective sentiments towards Evo Morales that, in part, made him so popular for so many years. Here I am going to trace one of these ideals—plurinationalism—from its conception by highland indigenous movements to government policy, and the emergence of its negation found in the regional autonomy movement, to underscore the general disponibilidad of the Bolivian population and highlight some of the limitations of plurinationalism as a nationalising moment. I have chosen plurinationalism as it was a concept that was central to the indigenous movements that pushed Morales to power and one of their principal demands in the Constituent Assembly (2006-2007) during the first term of the MAS. It has also become one of the more controversial changes the MAS attempted to implement, making it a good lens through which to examine the generalised disponibilidad of this moment.
Plurinationalism emerged from the (mainly Aymara) highland indigenous movements in a situation of continuing internal colonialism. For anthropologist Salvador Schavelzon (2015: 72-78), plurinationalism was a political articulation of the Aymara peasant experience during the 1970s and 1980s, initially crystallising within the Katarismo movement and struggles against the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer.10 This was furthered by the formation of the Trade-Union Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers (CSUTCB) in 1979, which proposed ‘an alternative, plurinational model of state, recognising cultural and ethnic diversity and indigenous autonomies’ (Pow$ska 2013: 118). Plurinationalism gained increasing traction following the implementation of neoliberal multiculturalism by President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in the mid-1990s. It offered an alternative to political and economic assimilation into the neoliberal project under the guise of cultural difference and ‘the possibility of being simultaneously a member of the Bolivian nation and of a nation at the sub-state level, such as the Aymara, Chiriguana or Moxeña nation’ (Núñez del Prado 2009: 55). Plurinationalism was then radicalised by former Túpaj Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK.) member Felipe Quispe during his leadership of the CSUTCB in the late-1990s, becoming a means for rural Aymara communities and ayllus to pursue ‘a politics of indigenous uprising and revolt against the republic of whites and Europeans’ (Schavelzon 2015: 77).
However, it was not until the formation of the indigenous social movement coalition, the Unity Pact,11 in 2004 and the election of Morales as President in late-2005 that plurinationalism assumed centre stage. One of the central demands to be articulated through the cycle of social movement struggle was the call for a Constituent Assembly, which the Unity Pact envisioned as being underpinned by plurinationalism, whereby ‘the indigenous, originary and peasant nations and peoples of Bolivia would have direct representation in all government levels and powers as collective subjects, in accordance
The end of Evo Morales 71 with their customary practices’ (Pacto de Unidad 2006: 5). The MAS government took this concept on board, using it as a cornerstone in its project to build an ‘indigenous state’ (Postero 2017). Through the figure of Morales himself, the MAS were able to present itself as the representative of indigenous groups in Bolivia whilst also fostering national support beyond indigenous groups. However, as the MAS stretched the notion of plurinationalism over its broad support base, it lost some of its specificity, becoming so loose that was effectively transformed into ‘a new national identity close to “Bolivianness” itself’ (Schavelzon 2015: 79). Indeed, plurinationalism became so intertwined with the Bolivian national identity that it was incorporated into the official name of the country. I contend that Rafael Bautista’s (2011: 94) observation about its sister concept, vivir bien (living well), can be extended to plurinationalism: it ‘does not capture a theoretical but, in its ultimate instance, a political endeavour ... what it addresses is the constitution of the subject itself within a political project’. In other words, a brief examination of plurinationalism shows not only the importance of the rise of the peasant moment in the latter stages of the 20th century in shaping Bolivian politics but, more importantly for my argument here, the general disponibilidad across the nation to accept a new political reference point and the formation of a new national political identity.
This was not, as I mentioned above, uncontested. Plurinationalism did not just take root in the indigenous movements of the western highland and Cochabamba valleys, later being taken on by the MAS government. It took hold within the circles of the lowland elite, who saw plurinationalism as an existential threat to the economic and political privileges that their class and race had bestowed upon them thanks to the continuing influence of colonial matrices of political power in constructing social hierarchies (Plata 2008: 102). At the turn of the century, the proclamations of ‘two Bolivias’ by Felipe Quispe sparked a bellicose reaction from this group, who quickly articulated into a political movement around regional autonomy. The result was the emergence of the Media Luna regional bloc and two distinct political projects:
one that want[ed] to constitute Bolivia through the presence of the indigenous majority, with the constitution of a plurinational state; and the other of the cruceña elite, which postulate^] autonomous departments and, within their radical sectors, the ethnic reinvention of the ‘Nación Camba’ [Camba Nation].
(Plata 2008: 102)12
At the heart of this movement was an alternative vision of the nation, complete with its own distinct ethnic composition and foundational myth.13 As such, the autonomy movement, and particularly one of its central currents, the Nación Camba, set up their opposition to the MAS government explicitly on the terrain of nationalising projects, with parts of the autonomy movement apparently willing to amputate gangrenous limbs from its body in order to scrape together the foundational materials of its project. In its pursuit of this end, the autonomy movement became increasingly belligerent, threatening to split the country in two. The political tensions reached their zenith in mid-2008, when the departmental governors, supported by their Civic Committees and, at times, protofascist thugs, attempted to mount a coup d’état against Morales with the backing of the US government (Soruco 2011; Webber 2011a; Wikileaks 2015).
In a sense, then, the left-indigenous bloc pushing for plurinationalism and the lowland Media Luna autonomy movement can be considered co-constituted—both driven by ideas, albeit conflicting, of social transformation. Whilst the autonomy movement was nominally defeated in the wake of the violence of the Porvenir massacre in September 2008, the political sentiments and disgruntlement of the lowland elites did not disappear. Although the lowland agricultural bourgeoisie benefitted nicely from the politics of agrarian change pursued by Morales’ government (see Castañón 2017; McKay 2018; Wolff 2016), they were not Morales’ natural allies, and their alliance with Morales consummated at the 2010 International Fair of Santa Cruz (ExpoCruz) was (as history now shows) little more than a marriage of convenience. When the bonanza of the commodities boom ended and there was not enough of the pie to go around, this group became increasingly agitated and had turned on Morales by the beginning of 2016.
This is the shortcoming of a programme of political reforms without a revolutionary rupture (and the defeat of the old): that a new set of ideas can displace the moral driver of politics and themselves become the new, ‘revolutionary’ idea (Zavaleta 2008: 42). As much happened in February 2016, when Morales ill-advisedly decided to organise a referendum on the removal of constitutional presidential term limits. Given that Morales had won the national elections two years prior with 61% of the vote, this was not a massive gamble, although it would turn out to be a significant political misjudgement. Disparate oppositional groups were able to unite under the banner of democracy, recycling the initial critiques of the MAS during the Constituent Assembly levied against Morales by his opponents. The plebiscite was framed as the destruction of Bolivian democracy, a threat to the health of
The end of Evo Morales 73 the political system regardless of the outcome. In the context of the lack of formal employment opportunities and the increasingly evident accumulation of sectors of the emergent popular bourgeoisie in the economy, the disgruntled urban middle classes gradually drew a connection between plurinationalism and the erasure of democracy, as it increasingly collapsed, together with the MAS, into the figure of Morales. Likewise, the contradictions thrown up by the extractive development model of the MAS undermined the presentation of Morales, and by extension plurinationalism, as the representative of indigenous peoples, helping build cross-class, cross-regional alliances across the different sectors of the opposition to the MAS.
In the days running up to the vote, Morales’ opponents were speculating fraud and questioning the legitimacy of the vote right up until the results were announced: a narrow defeat for Morales. A decisive factor in the vote was a series of misinformation campaigns. Doctored images of voting results suggesting that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) had engaged in fraud appeared on social media (Gustafson 2016). Although they were later to be shown to be false and, given the referendum result, were ultimately not politically significant, they did set a precedent and sow the seeds of doubt about the TSE. There was also plenty of speculation around the existence (or not) of a child Morales supposedly had with former girlfriend Gabriela Zapata (McNelly 2016), leading the MAS to label the referendum el día de la mentira (the day of the lie).
It is in these two lineages that the two competing narratives around the October-November crisis lie: in the opposition who saw (and had always seen) Morales as a threat to Bolivian democracy (understood by some reactionary factions as the old Republic); and in the (real) threat of foreign and/or military-induced regime change. These two narratives—painted by many as dichotomous—emerge from the accumulated political processes of the Morales years. Further doubts were cast when, contravening the outcomes of the 2016 referendum, the TSE accepted Morales’ candidacy for the 2019 elections on the basis of his human rights to democracy, and the months leading to the 2019 elections were replete with stories of impending fraud (Chávez V. 2019; Lizarraga 2019). The MAS attempted to counter these accusations by underscoring the possibility of a coup d'état (ANF 2019). This is, in part, why both narratives surfaced long before the vote on 20 October took place, and why both sides were quick to decry ‘fraud’ or ‘coup’ without a shred of evidence. Viewing the crisis of October-November in this light brings the genealogy of these competing discourses to the fore and helps us understand the political polarisation of this moment.