The Funambulist Correspondents #05 La Paz: What Happens When Social Movements Win?



Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

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Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) has long differentiated itself from other traditional left-wing parties by highlighting its organic nature and link to the country’s principal social movements. The visual representation of this came at almost midnight on 18 October 2019 when the party declared electoral victory against the Anez coup regime. Exit polls, published 5-6 hours late, showed a landslide victory for Evo Morales’ party, after nearly a year as victims of fierce political persecution. The economist, now President, Luis Arce, gave his first statement to the press standing next to the indigenous leader, Pelagio Condori, who was wearing his traditional ‘chulo’ hat from North Potosi, as well as union leader Orlando Gutierrez, wearing his miner’s helmet. 

The message was clear; This alliance of workers, indigenous nations, and socialist intellectuals, is about to walk the halls of power. 

A few months later, that alliance appears to still be intact. At a recent state ceremony, Juan Carlos Huarachi, leader of Bolivia’s largest labor union federation (COB), stated, “In the name of my comrades in the Central Obrera Boliviana, I ratify this commitment to support my country and my government”. 

Also present at the event, with President Luis Arce, were the Indigenous women’s confederation ‘Bartolina Sisa’ and the Indigenous campesino confederation CSUTCB. The country’s new power brokers. Where once the military lined the presidential palace, now it was miners helmets and the traditional ‘aguayo’ textures and patterns.  

From Torotoro, Potosi, photograph by Ollie Vargas.

So what happens when social movements win? What does it mean to move beyond oppositional protest and into a position of political power? Is it possible to govern alongside social movements rather than on their behalf? 

Speaking to the Funambulist, Raquel Mamani, a leader of the 6 Federations of the Tropico (Indigenous campesino union) said; “For us, the question of taking power is the most important thing, that’s why we, the social movements, created the MAS as an instrument that can bring together all sectors; workers, transportistas, market traders, campesinos, everyone. The only way our classes can have any kind of protection is if we have our own government and a President we can speak to always”. 

Efrain Seña, Secretary of 1ero de Mayo, a local branch of the 6 Federations, concurred, saying; “Now, we can choose those who’ll be our candidates and we can have a meeting with any government Minister whenever we need, it’s just a question of organizing a union meeting and passing a motion that can be sent to the Minister, then they reply with a date for us to meet. Before the MAS, do you think that was possible for poor people to do? People would just get to the doors of a government office, if they were lucky they could leave their letter with the receptionist, but that’s where it would die. They’d have to return empty-handed. 

Seña explained one example of the fruits of this relationship between social movements and the state. Describing how a bridge in his community was built after the union drew up a request and explained the benefits it would bring, their request was passed up through their union federation and then to the relevant Minister who was happy to oblige. He said that such occurrences were never heard of before, this could only happen with a government that owed its position to movements of which Sena is a part.

Visiting the seat of government in La Paz provides one with ample evidence of this relationship. When I traveled there from Cochabamba in December, a month after the MAS took office, I found myself drinking copious amounts of free coffee in hallways of the Senate as I waited to interview Leonardo Loza, a Tropico union leader who had recently been elected to the upper house. We had agreed at a set time, but the coca growers union from the Yungas region turned up right at that moment and demanded an urgent meeting that went on for close to three hours. 

I had a similar experience that same day in the Ministry of Communications when my meeting was also delayed multiple hours as the RPO’s (indigenous social movement radio stations) had taken the Minister’s attention for far longer than expected. 

The institutions of the State are not closed off to those without a degree from a foreign university. These are the movements that threw off the Old Bolivia, so it’s natural that they are part of constructing the new.

To understand this link between the State and the social movement, one has to look at the party. The Movement Towards Socialism-Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples is not a party in the traditional form. One cannot join as an individual by filling out an online form. One can only join by being a member of one of the affiliated organizations, which are the Confederacion de Interculturales (indigenous group), Bartolinas Sisa (indigenous women’s confederation), CSUTCB (campesino workers federation), as well as smaller campesino Federations CIDOB, CONAMAQ. The main labor union confederation COB has an observer status but is not formally linked. 

These organizations cover virtually the entire rural population of Bolivia and much of the working-class sectors in urban areas. 

“We passed from the union struggle into the electoral struggle, that is our model of doing politics,” said Evo Morales, in reference to the party’s social movement character. The MAS was founded by 6 Federations, the campesino union he led, during the struggles against the US military presence in the 90s and early 2000s. 

The idea was that unions should not be simply for oppositional and apolitical protest for the nebulous conception of ‘rights’, but centers for political action in which people can participate in national politics. At a recent congress in Cochabamba, he commented; “what do they tell us, that imperialist doctrine? The unions must not do politics, the social movements must not do politics… for workers what do they propose? ‘Union independence, they even propose ‘ideological pluralism’, a union like the ATE they’ll say Ah! you have to contain both left and right, with the people and the empire. What is that? What sort of union is that? That’s the North American doctrine, it’s the doctrine of imperialism. They don’t want the people and our social forces to do politics“

Nevertheless, despite this formal link between the ruling party and social movements the realities of governing are always complex, inevitably there have been moments of tensions between a MAS government and the social movements. Moments where the government cannot deliver a certain demand due to lack of resources or other issues. The way movements respond to such situations is indicative of how these organizations feel about their attachment to ‘their government’. 

In 2016, there was a rupture between Morales’ government and the COB. A state-owned textiles factory was closed after running at a loss for numerous years. 800 workers were laid off. The government argued that it could not justify spending large amounts of money on a project that would not be a net benefit to the country. Then COB leader Guido Mitma was furious and led mobilizations of the workers. He said at the time; “the support of the workers for the government has been returned in betrayal”. Mitma was later voted out by the rank and file, Juan Carlos Huarachi, a MAS supporter, was elected as the new General Secretary shortly after. Nevertheless, the episode was a serious clash between the state and the movements it represents.

For the movements that remained allied to the party, they say they have mechanisms to correct errors that arise. Raquel Mamani stated that “there have been moments where these conflicts happen, where the state may not understand a certain issue or is confused. If something is going in the wrong direction we organize ourselves and inform the relevant authorities and even the President. They always receive us and we inform them of what’s really going on.”

Ollie Vargas is a Bolivian reporter, covering the situation in the country following the coup. Other work can be found at Mintpress NewsThe GrayzoneteleSUR English and Radio Kawsachun Coca.