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The MAS demise: the reasons for the fall and the legacy for a new Bolivia.

By Roberto Tacca-

Source: Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP

In November 2019, President Morales of Bolivia had to flee the country and formally resign in a desperately late attempt to restore order throughout the country as protests had erupted in all major cities and regions. Eventually, these protest movements won the support of the military, truly signalling the end for Morales. Numerically and politically surrounded, president Morales chose exile, first to Mexico and then to Argentina, joined by the Minister of Health (Gabriela Montaño) and the Vice-President (Alvaro Garcia Linera). The move was welcomed by the protestors as the last act of the Morales Presidency bringing an end to the MAS-IPSP (Movimiento Al Socialismo-Instrumento Político para la Soberanía de Los Pueblos) political monopoly in Bolivia. Janine Añez of the opposition was elected President ad interim and her government promised to restore law and order in the country and guaranteed new presidential elections in 2020. The first date, May 3rd, was later changed to September 6th when the Covid-19 crisis exploded; subsequently, the T.S.E. (Plurinational Electoral Organ) postponed the date to October 18th 2020 due to the persistently difficult sanitary conditions in Bolivia. This decision may potentially further destabilize the socio-political climate, adding to the already numerous issues the country has to face in its most uncertain hour of the 21st century. Now, in the run-up to the election and in the middle of a sanitary emergency, some questions may well help us to understand the political demise of the MAS in Bolivia: how could the most promising political experiment in South America have fallen (an event that could well have large scale implications that could be compared to those of the 1952 Bolivian Revolution in their importance)? How radical was the social change in the country during the MAS-IPSP administration? And what are the challenges that lie ahead for the new President of Bolivia? The MAS administration: A new beginning and redefining society At the beginning of the 2000s, Morales’s party managed to present itself to the nation and the world as something completely new in the region: an indigenous force speaking from the heart of the most indigenous country in South America. Its major political accomplishment is considered to be the new Constitution (CPE), promulgated in 2009: the replacement of the old “Republic of Bolivia” with the new “Plurinational State of Bolivia” (art. 1) was to mark the Proceso de Cambio’s [Process of Change's] first step. This new political entity recognized the multiculturality that characterizes the country, giving space and rights to Indigenous Nations for the first time in national history (art. 2, 3, 30). Alongside such provisions, the text also recognized the necessity of protecting nature from excessive exploitation (especially in art. 342, 343). The constitution implemented legislation in favour of the environment and the indigenous world, by, first of all, recognizing their existence. This was a revolutionary moment in the region because never before had any state done something similar. In the new Constitution, we can thus find the key entities that make up the present and future of Bolivia: the people or “el pueblo”, Indigenous Nations and nature/ the environment. Firstly, the MAS policy was oriented towards all those sectors of society that had strongly suffered from the large scale neo-liberal privatization that took place at the beginning of the new millennium. In the cities, it spoke not only to the poorest but also to the (lower) middle-class; in the countryside, the party could count on the support of numerous trade unions and land workers (campesinos). Among the latter, the coca growers were the most organized group and most faithful ally of the government. The people, or “el pueblo”, were continuously invoked by Morales to justify any decision taken by the government: he was a mere executor, el pueblo was the true ruler. Someone labelled such modus operandi as populist. Although tempting, it would be wrong to consider the Indigenous Nations as part of el pueblo. Officially 33 nations were recognized by the new Constitution (art. 5), despite the fact that within Bolivia there are over 100 self-determined indigenous groups most of which are are scattered over the vast Andean territory or living in (semi-)isolation in the rainforest, where they are difficult to reach and to contact. This problem is not new to Bolivian governments, and this makes the “officialization” of 33 human groups out of a hundred arbitrary at the very least, and it poses a greater threat to these nations than before. For this reason, it is difficult to talk of an indigenous world integrated within the “pueblo” of the new Plurinational State and they must be considered separately. Last, but not least, came Nature (or Pachamama). All indigenous traditions in Latin America highlight the great importance of the relationship between Man and Nature: according to them, the key for the future is a relationship between the two based on mutual respect and reciprocity (what is taken must be given back). Historically, Bolivia has been largely exploited for the richness of its soil and forest; nowadays the latest threat is the expansion of farms, cocaleros, and the intrusion of foreign enterprises in protected areas. The CPE recognises the Indigenous Nations as the key ally to promote and safeguard the numerous protected areas still present in Bolivia as indigenous knowledge and its direct experience of the most peripheral territories were to create a much closer and more efficient collaboration with the government than ever before. The 2009 Constitution has thus overcome the old division between “city” and “countryside”, and replaced it with this new triad: any future stability and prosperity would have been based upon protecting these three entities and fostering their cooperation. It was then time to put this plan to the test. The failures of the new plan and the demise of MAS From 2010, the government began to increase the number of collaborations with foreign enterprises to exploit the natural richness of the country. Not only did many such enterprises not comply with the Bolivian law with respect to indigenous and environmental rights, sometimes they even openly violated them. The TIPNIS case symbolises the attack on the Pachamama in the name of economic progress: the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), located in the heart of the country, is one of the main preserved natural parks of the country and home to several Indigenous Nations. Despite this, the government allowed the construction of a highway passing through the very core of the park, justifying the act with supposed economic benefits for the country and better connections with Brazil. When the first protests appeared, the government firstly ignored them, then it tried to repress them. The majority of the demonstrators belonged to Indigenous Nations (“official” ones and not) and, according to local historical tradition, the protestors marched up to La Paz, where the Government sits, to express their grievances to the president. However, the march was attacked by police forces and bands of “vigilantes” trying to scatter the protestors (this is now known as “Chaparina Massacre”).

On a separate occasion in May 2016, the government chose to repress a demonstration held by disabled people who were asking for economic support by the government. Such acts were justified by portraying the protestors as enemies of el pueblo paid by the opposition to destabilize Bolivia (as Telesur reported). Infrastructure is not the only threat to the environment's rights in Bolivia: the massive growth of plantations in new areas has brought our three social protagonists and entities of the 'new Bolivia' in conflict once more. The expansion of the agricultural industry, legal or not, has meant the trespassing of protected areas by the farmers (members of “el pueblo”); the Indigenous Nations involved have not been able to do more than limit the damage by negotiating with the “intruders''. The government showed full support for the farmers and very little empathy with the native communities. Furthermore, in July 2019, the Pachamama’s rights were burnt down before the nation’s eyes when one of the Noel Kempff Mercado National Parks suffered a massive fire which was started in Santa Cruz by some farmers as a measure to prepare the soil for sowing. The fire destroyed a vast area of the region and killed thousands of wild animals and four firefighters. Once more, the government chose to stand on the side of the farmers and tried to justify their actions. At this point, numerous voices began to question the MAS's real interest in safeguarding the Natural and Indigenous world. Furthermore, in 2009, when the CPE (the new constitution) was approved, the government had its previous first term “cancelled”, claiming that the new first term would begin in that year. In 2014, the party won the elections again and, according to the Constitution (art. 168), both President and Vice President are allowed one re-election only. Surprisingly enough, in February 2016, the government proposed a referendum to modify art. 168 and thus introduce an indefinite number of re-elections for the major institutional roles. The population of Bolivia voted against the modification, however, the results were close causing the MAS administration to blame bribery and external pressures upon the population as reasons for an unfair election. When the T.S.E. declared the referendum invalid thereby approving Morales’s third term, the opposition turned to the OEA (Organisation for American States) to challenge this outcome. OEA’s General Secretary, Luis Almagro, initially supported the government (although this subsequently changed), deepening the fracture within Bolivia. This already extremely tense situation exploded following the election in November 2019 when several irregularities (actual or presumed) occurred during the voting and counting of votes. The population of Bolivia took to the streets en masse demanding the resignation of Morales and new transparent elections. For a few days, the country stood on the brink of a civil war, but when the militaries declared their support for the protestors, the government was left alone. The Aftermath: What now? The Morales Era has deeply marked the history of Bolivia. The social reforms have improved the conditions of the poorest in the country and put the nation back on the international stage; the 2009 Constitution opened up a new chapter in the social history of the country by forming a tripartition between Citizenry, Indigenous People, and Nature. Although it represents one of the boldest attempts to harmonize these diverse social forces, the project was quickly hampered by the complexity of Bolivia. Any future government must not make the same mistakes as Morales did by underestimating this complexity because therein lies the very heart of the nation. Now, the social actors that make up society and Bolivia as a country are clearly defined and they can speak for themselves, which is a great advantage especially when compared with past decades, but this must be a starting point, not a goal in itself (as the MAS considered it to be). What is paramount, though, is that these entities understand the benefits of their recognition by the previous government, and hopefully embrace the long-promised process of change responsibly and in cooperation with each other, in the nation’s interest.



Delgado, Ana Carolina. (2017). The TIPNIS Conflict in Bolivia. Contexto Internacional, 39(2), 373-392


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