Bolivi’n the dream?


Originally published in the Oxford Student on 18th November 2010

Álvaro García Linera was arrested for sabotaging electricity pylons in La Paz in the early 1990s and was branded a terrorist by the Bolivian state. When in jail, the former Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army insurgent taught himself sociology, developing a penchant for Marx and Weber. 15 years later, Linera was elected Vice President of Bolivia under a Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government, headed by former coca farmer and trade unionist Evo Morales.

Though the career of this intellectual turned revolutionary turned moderate incumbent may seem a typical radical’s sell-out once in office, speaking at the Oxford Union in November, Linera was honest and compelling in his vision of Bolivian communitarianism.

He has said before that he does not believe a socialist regime can exist in Bolivia, at least for another 50 or 100 years, due to its lack of a proletariat, and insufficient urbanisation. The MAS instead wishes to implement ‘Andean capitalism’ – a form of national communitarianism that protects minority groups and recognises the plurality of economic and social organisations in Bolivia (or the Plurinational State of Bolivia, to give it its full name).

“70 per cent of the population is made up of small peasants, micro-businesses… They were never taken into account by public policy before because it was always believed this sector would disappear.” The MAS doesn’t “believe this sector will modernise – we think they’ll find their own way of developing.”

In order to facilitate development, the government is making modern technology, communications, infrastructure, and credit available to formerly marginalised groups. The aim is to provide them with access to markets, not to force them into the commercial sector or try to shoulder them out of their traditional way of life.

South American politics have long been preoccupied with decolonisation; much of the criticism of North America is based on its neo-imperial policies, and the marginalisation of indigenous people throughout South America has made the region a seedbed for radical and socialist ideas. It was during the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, when a consortium of foreign companies negotiated with the government over privatisation of the municipal water supply, that “indigenous peasant hegemony was first felt.”

The agitation against privatisation was based more on anti-colonialism than anti-capitalism, though in the context of South American politics it is doubtful that the two can be meaningfully separated. It was the World Bank – often seen as an organ of neo-imperial capitalism – that tried to force the government to privatise its water supply in the first place.

Evo Morales emerged as a political figure during the Water War, helping to unite an “alliance of the indigenous peasant sector and middle class, mixed race, urban sectors. Young educated people came to support the peasants at the barricade.” At the same time, “a kind of ethnically influenced discourse emerged as a politically mobilising force.” The indigenous majority of Bolivia’s population were for the first time absorbed into the political mainstream, and Morales was eventually elected President with an unprecedented 54 per cent majority; he was the first indigenous president of Bolivia. For this reason, his presidency is “just as important for Bolivia as the presidency of Nelson Mandela was for South Africa.”

Yet this ethnic and economic heterogeneity has its attendant problems: Morales’s presidency has been beset by reactionary violence, particularly over the issue of renationalisation of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon resources. The friction has been exacerbated by territorial fragmentation; many conservative groups have agitated for regional autonomy, and Bolivia’s mountainous terrain has made centralisation difficult.

When democratic means of deposing Morales failed – (he won a revocatory referendum with 68 per cent of the vote) – the conservative opposition started using violence. “Civil shock groups took control of airports and public institutions. The opposition movement seized control of 60 per cent of national territory.”

Although the government was prepared for a backlash and so managed to stabilise the situation, legislative concessions were made to grant certain autonomy. “The state crisis resolved, but we can’t say how long the resolution will be. If solutions are superficial, it’s possible another state crisis will emerge. However, if the solutions are structural, it should be possible to avoid another commotion.”

Linera’s self-taught sociology is most obvious in his conception of state crises and the ‘point of bifurcation’, which he attributes to Nobel Prize winning physicist Ilya Prigogine’s dissipative structures theory (Linera studied mathematics at university). Point of bifurcation theory states that when two power blocs have reached an impasse, and are existing in a state of tension and paralysis, something has to give. “The important moment is when, out of disorder and chaos, a new order emerges. Politically speaking, the point of bifurcation is when a state stabilises itself… This is what happens with all revolutions.”

The failure of neoliberalism in Bolivia precipitated just such a state crisis, and though much of the radical fervour felt at the beginning of the decade has passed, Linera is still moved by the social movement he witnessed. “Ideas are always around, but only occasionally can they take on a material form. It is the dream of every revolutionary to be around when it happens, but often you will die without seeing it. It happened in 2000 [the Water War] and in 2003 [the gas conflict]. People found themselves open to new ideas – there was a collective predisposition to new beliefs.”

In reality the government must arbitrate between conflicting interest groups, and Linera is aware of the inherent delicacy of any state: “The state makes decision in perpetuity, but constantly has to consider the needs of different groups, and balance them. It appears as a common interest but it’s already been defined by a private interest – the interest of those in charge… The state is an illusory community [and a] correlative force.”

The neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, which attempted to make Bolivia the ‘Switzerland of South America’, failed to provide such stability. Discontent over a lack of well-being in the middle class swelled the ranks of the core disenfranchised group of indigenous peasants. But the socialist dream of Linera’s early days has not been wholly realised. Bolivia has taken huge strides towards a fairer, communitarian society – the ‘productive state’ controls 35 per cent of GDP – but issues over decentralisation and nationalisation of resources are still sorely divisive. “We hope it goes well for us,” Linera concludes.

Though his sociological approach to political problems may seem impractical, Linera is not dogmatically committed to socialist orthodoxy. He believes that “Hegel was more correct than Marx, at least in the first part.” But Bolivia has managed to install an indigenous president for the first time, absorb its peasant community into the political process, nationalise resources and pass legislation to protect the marginalised peasant and artisan communities. Although some short-term compromises have been made, the MAS may well have laid the groundwork for a progression to socialism in the future.

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