The Funambulist Correspondents 23 /// Building the Next Generation of Social Movement Leaders in Bolivia



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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If a successful social movement is to survive as a long-term actor, then it must have a new crop of youth leaders who can take the reins once the historic leaders are no longer able to. That’s the challenge facing Bolivia today, where popular movements from the 90s and early 2000s were able to form a party and conquer state power in 2005, but now in 2021 — five general election victories later — the work of training a new generation has become more urgent. Evo Morales himself is taking a leading role on this issue within his own union, the 6 Federations of the Tropico.

Morales has often been presented in the country’s right-wing media as a jealous power-hungry tyrant who refused to allow ambitious young people to claim their due space. The fact that he was the Movement Towards Socialism’s (MAS) presidential candidate four  times was supposedly the proof of this. However, watching him up close here in his region of the Tropico of Cochabamba, where he led (and continues to lead) the coca growers union (6 Federations), that caricature in the media could not be further from the truth. Indeed, when the US-backed coup took place in 2019, forcing Morales into exile, the most visible leader who arose amid the chaos was 30-year-old Andronico Rodriguez, the vice-president of the 6 Federations. 

In the year before the coup, Evo Morales had begun including Rodriguez in the official state activities and was openly touting him as a future successor to the presidency. During the 2019 elections, Morales  secured his place as a Senate candidate where he’d be sure to win. He won that seat, but the 2019 elections were never respected. The military intervened. The day after Morales was airlifted to Mexico, the country’s social movements were in a state of shock and disorientation. 14 years in government hadn’t been the best preparation for a return to the trenches of a bitter social struggle. Despite this state of confusion, Andronico Rodriguez ordered his union’s media outlet, Radio Kawsachun Coca, to broadcast his message to the country. The message included a clear plan of mobilizations across  three major cities and a way to ensure the return of Evo Morales within a week. It was thwarted by state repression, but his clear message gripped a country that was crying out for leadership amid the trauma of the coup. 

Andronico is now the President of Bolivia’s Senate. I had the fortune of covering his campaign throughout 2020 and bore witness to the almost-cult status he gained after taking that leadership role during the worst moments of the coup. His undeniably good looks didn’t hurt either. We traveled around the country addressing five to six rallies per day; and after each one, I’d always have to physically wrestle my way back to the dusty campaign jeep as armies of fanatical young supporters clamoured for an opportunity to take a hallowed selfie with the rockstar. Despite all the talk about Evo Morales not giving space to new young leaders, it was his protégé, within his own union, who met the responsibilities that history had suddenly thrust upon him. 

Now that Morales is back in the country, as President of the MAS and of the 6 Federations, he has thrown himself into the work of forging the new generations of the 6 Federations. After his return, his first act for the youth wing was to call  a meeting where he proposed launching a new weekly show on Radio Kawsachun Coca for the youth leaders of each of the 6 Federations. That show is going strong today and those of us at the radio have the duty of working the cameras and microphones every Friday evening. The format of the show, which was Morales’ idea, is designed as a weekly group discussion focusing on  a key episode in Bolivia’s history (so far, the discussions have covered the conquest of the Americas, the struggle for independence, the 1952 revolution, the military period, and more). The young leaders who participate have to investigate and do their homework to be able to speak on the subject at the end of the week. Morales presented the first episode, but since then it’s been up to those young members to organize and present it themselves. Up till now, they haven’t missed a single week and the experience has also allowed them to sharpen their mass media and public speaking skills. Like anyone, their first few shows were difficult and included a lot of umming and ahhing, but now, speaking confidently when the cameras start rolling is second nature for them. 

Building on that, Morales then brought them as his guests for the Bicentennial Congress of Peoples hosted by the Venezuelan government in Caracas in June 2021. For all the young members and campesino farmers, it was their first time outside the country. For the first time, they engaged in discussions and debates with social movements from across the whole region. Johnny Cruz, President of the 6 Federations youth mentioned: 

“The trip was a unique experience. We learned so much from all our comrades in different Latin American countries and beyond. For us, it was such a profound experience, and everyone received us so well and wanted to learn about our experiences fighting against the coup last year.”

Following the trip, Evo Morales called the youth leaders to another private meeting where he proposed organizing an ‘anti-imperialist’ day school event. Exactly a month ago at the time of writing this piece, that event took place. After two days of intense, all-day lectures, all the speakers were invited by Morales. The classes included a history lecture on the origins of Bolivia’s social movements, an elementary lesson in economics, a lecture on the history of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution which was delivered  by Iris Varela, President of Venezuela’s National Assembly, and a sociology class on the character of Left governments in Latin America, conducted by a Chilean academic. The classes consisted of a lecture by each speaker, but it wasn’t a didactic affair: after each session, there’d be two hours for questions and debate from the floor (longer than the one-hour lecture). Morales stayed for the event, sitting among the rank and file, and making his own notes throughout.  

Ollie V The Funambulist
Female youth leaders of the 6 Federations of the Tropico, on stage at the anti-imperialist day school organized by Evo Morales. Image Courtesy: Ollie Vargas.

His involvement gave the event a unique edge. Through his status as an ex-president, he was able to bring those high-profile international speakers that gave the youth a different perspective than what they are used to. 

Upon being asked what she liked best about the event, Iris Varela said:

“My favorite part of today’s school was the questions from the floor that came after the speeches, it made for important debate and discussion. These were questions that all young revolutionaries make and they open the path for these ideas to be more than just theories, for them to become practice.”

The school was just the start of a series of political schools to train the young members of the 6 Federations. This region has been the backbone of the MAS throughout its existence, so it is of vital importance that new figures emerge from its ranks.

However, the process of forging a new generation of union leaders, particularly when those unions hold state power, is not a task that comes without complications and tensions. 

Speaking at the day school, Andronico Rodriguez ended his speech warning of the eternal contradiction between idealism and ambition that exists among youth organizations, a problem that remains unresolved in Bolivia and most likely throughout the world. Perhaps his reflections can serve as food for thought for activists everywhere. 

“There are some young people who want leadership roles, but at first they can’t break through and they start getting bitter saying ‘the old leaders don’t want to give me a chance, they spend their life being frustrated and suddenly they are no longer young. Instead, you as young people need to prove yourselves and show the skills you can contribute, that’s why political education now is so important.”

Andronico Rodriguez, 31, president of Bolivia’s Senate, vice president of the 6 Federations of the Tropico.