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Regrouping the Bolivian Left

Bolivia is still reeling from the coup that unseated Evo Morales last November. Amid repression and intimidation from a fortified Right now in power, the Left is preparing itself for new presidential elections.

Luis Arce Catacora, presidential candidate and former finance minister (center), and David Choquehuanca, vice presidential candidate and former foreign minister (center left), wave flags during a Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party campaign rally on February 8, 2020 in El Alto, Bolivia. (Marcelo Perez del Carpio / Getty Images)

In the wake of the coup that removed Evo Morales from power last November, Bolivia’s next presidential elections are set for May 3. With Morales in exile in Argentina, and with a right-wing “transition” government dedicated to demolishing his legacy, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) faces an uphill battle in its bid to return to office.

Despite the country’s reactionary turn, and the waves of repression unleashed by new leader Jeanine Áñez, a recent survey nonetheless shows that MAS has retained a significant portion of its popular base and, with the Right divided, could very well secure a spot in run-off elections.

A Winning Ticket?

May’s election will take place in the context of a unique political instability. Every day, former MAS functionaries are jailed on various corruption charges. On January 22, hundreds of soldiers were deployed in the streets in order to intimidate Morales’s followers on the anniversary of the birth of the new Plurinational State’s Constitution, passed in 2009.

In the lead-up to May’s election, all MAS campaigning has been branded as “suspicious,” and is often referred to in terms of “sedition” and “terrorism.” What Fernando Molina has called “a new power bloc” is forming, supported by a “whiter,” conservative, and wealthy urban base — a distinct contrast with Morales’s largely rural base.

At the time of writing, Evo Morales is still a senatorial candidate for Cochabamba. This could change if the Supreme Electoral Tribunal decides to bar Morales from running on the basis that he is not residing in Bolivia. The candidacy of MAS’s presidential contender, Luis Arce Catacora, is itself under “investigation,” and his campaign will surely be the object of increased attacks before May’s elections.

The choice of Luis Arce Catacora for presidential candidate was decided on from Buenos Aires, where Morales is currently in exile. Finance minister throughout most of Morales’s administration, Luis Arce Catacora is a moderate economist whose policies successfully stimulated growth, as well as poverty reduction — though they did not change the dependence on extractive industries. His model encouraged the expansion of the state’s role in the economy while also maintaining macroeconomic stability, differentiating the Bolivian experience from the Venezuelan one.

The alternative MAS candidate was the former foreign minister David Choquehuanca, who lost this post in 2017, but enjoys support in the Aymara regions of the Altiplano. For his part, Choquehuanca often proves ideologically inscrutable. His discourse centers on Pachamama (Mother Earth) and is often almost esoteric. In recent years, he has been active in campaigns in the Aymara regions of the Altiplano. He was first connected to Morales in the 1980s, and through the Nina program, financed by various NGOs, he helped Morales to make the jump from union organizing among coca growers to politics, though the two politicians are now at some distance.

The Unity Pact, bringing together a large part of MAS’s rural organizations, had elected Choquehuanca as the presidential candidate and Andrónico Rodríguez as his running mate. Rodríguez is vice president of the Seis Federaciones Cocaleras del Trópico de Cochabamba, the coca growers’ union of which Morales remains president. Just thirty years old, he comes from a farming background and enjoys great popularity among campesinos. The Choquehuanca-Rodríguez ticket promised to maintain an Aymara-Quechua balance and preserve MAS’s identity, but doubtless it lacked an urban foothold.

From his base in the Argentine capital, Morales, still the leader of MAS, has agreed to put Choquehuanca on the ticket, but as the vice presidential — not presidential — candidate, and promoted Arce Catacora in order to try and win back some of the vote in the cities, the epicenter of the revolt against MAS.

The ex-president has reservations about his former foreign minister Choquehuanca, fearing that he could become another Lenín Moreno — the Ecuadorian president who has violently fallen out with his predecessor Rafael Correa, after having enjoyed his support in the run-up to his election victory. Another consideration is that having the indigenous Choquehuanca as the MAS leader might mean that Morales’ influence would be usurped.

Indeed, Morales’s influence has already weakened. Today, there are at least three different “galaxies” of MAS organization, marked by mutual distrust. There are those in exile in Argentina, where the “radicals,” often accused of not understanding what is now going on in Bolivia, dominate. There is the MAS parliamentary group, which controls two-thirds of the Congress and favors “dialogue” with the new government. Then there are the social organizations, above all indigenous-peasant in character, often focused on their sectoral interests.

A History of Tensions

These political tensions have their roots in the early days of the party. Born in the countryside in the 1990s, MAS was the electoral name adopted by the Instrumento Político por la Soberanía de los Pueblos, a sui generis political organization comprised of rural trade unions as well as former members of the traditional left, whose parties — Communist, Trotskyist, Guevarist — were thrown into crisis with the downfall of the Soviet Bloc.

While ideologically diffuse, MAS could be characterized as having a broadly left-nationalist orientation with a new indigenous discourse, which has assumed greater prominence since 1992, the 500th anniversary of the conquest of the Americas.

Although it later spread to the cities, the core of MAS support was originally among peasant organizations. It has always been a trade-union party of sorts, with little organic unity or ideological debate. Although its urban support has always tended to fluctuate, MAS remains the only left-wing electoral force in Bolivia, and the only party with strong popular support throughout the country — the Right will have enormous difficulty making inroads into MAS’s base in the indigenous-peasant territories.

MAS understands itself as a “political instrument” for social organizations rather than as a traditional party. This approach is not without precedent: in the 1940s, guided by Trotskyist initiatives, Bolivian miners ran for parliamentary elections as a miners’ bloc. That same tradition of participating in electoral politics from a trade-union base would later be transferred to MAS. Now, by contrast, the political subject or vanguard is no longer the miner, but the peasant.

MAS maintains a complex balancing act between different trade unions, regions, and ethnic groups (for example, in Northern Potosí, between indigenous [ayllus], peasants, and miners), and it does so with less of the internal unity typical of traditional left-wing parties. Given its social makeup, middle-class cadres are treated as “guests” rather than integral party members; Arce Catacora is one such “guest.”

Achieving a degree of unity among these interests has been complicated, and the leadership of Evo Morales has been vital in holding them together. In his absence, tensions are again flaring up. On the other hand, that he has stepped out of the spotlight could serve to reduce social polarization and ultimately benefit MAS.

MAS’s Achilles’ Heel

Perhaps most striking was that at the height of the coup, it became evident that the MAS had lost control of the streets. There were few social organizations that came out to fight, and instead the streets were occupied by the opposition, including the organized right-wing mobs of Santa Cruz — an agro-industrial region in the eastern part of the country, historically a bastion of conservatism.

Why was this the case? The years of proximity between the social movements and the government had worked to put distance between movement leaders and their social base, where the former often aspired to formal bureaucratic positions in the “government of the social movements,” and undermined grassroots work. This bureaucratic logic has weakened the culture of debate within the internal life of the movements and damaged their autonomy.

On the other hand, while sectors of the middle class had long felt excluded by the MAS, which cared little for the symbolic capital of university degrees, their dissatisfaction ran deeper. Morales’s decision to run as president beyond the terms stipulated in the 2009 Constitution and against the decision of a 2016 referendum had discouraged some former MAS supporters in the cities and radicalized the opposition. Claims of election irregularities in October further fueled the fire.

For all the successes of Morales’s fourteen years in power, the lack of independence of the judiciary (though not a new phenomenon in Bolivia), the use of government resources for campaigning purposes, and the “double standard” regarding the environment has not helped matters. The Chiquitanía fires weakened the government in public opinion.

Once Morales and Álvaro García Linera had departed, and violence against their supporters mounted, the MAS lacked cadre who could step in to fill the lead positions — despite the fact that the MAS controlled two-thirds of Congress and occupied speaker positions both in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Rather than calling for Morales’s return to power, resistance was instead drawn around the protection and legitimacy of the wiphala, an indigenous symbol targeted by right-wing demonstrators.

An Uncertain Scenario

After Morales’s ouster, the new government unleashed a wave of repression that resulted in the death of thirty people. At the same time, in an effort to intimidate, police were deployed in front of the Mexican Embassy, where several former government officials have sought asylum. Foreign voices that have been critical of the current government — like the Mexican ambassador and a high-ranking Spanish diplomat — have been declared as personae non grata and denounced as an “international conspiracy” against the new Bolivian government.

Violent, often armed, groups are an even greater cause for concern. The so-called “resistance” can be seen “guarding” the Mexican Embassy in La Paz, when they are not intimidating MAS activists all around the country with the complicity of the police. The radicalization, or “Bolsonaro-fication,” of this right-wing sector, with its intensely anti-communist rhetoric, is one of the key developments in present-day Bolivian politics.

Their quest to “erase” the last fourteen years and replace it with their own narrative is mirrored by the government, the media and social networks, and is captured in three words: “hordes” — a reference to MAS activists that reduces them to fanatical mobs; “squandering” — alleging that the previous government’s highly praised macroeconomic performance was in fact a fiction; and “tyranny” — alleging that the last fourteen years were nothing but pure state despotism.

For the time being, the anti-Evo field has several candidates: there is the acting president Jeanine Áñez, who for the time being has plateaued at around 15.5 percent of the vote; ex-president Carlos Mesa has reached 17 percent; and Luis Fernando Camacho — leader of the most radicalized wing responsible for Morales’s ouster — has dropped to 9.6 percent, with only 1 percent in La Paz. Camacho may in fact have to withdraw from the race if his numbers remain too low.

MAS, in turn, will yield positive results if it can run a good campaign, take advantage of the Right’s weakness, and present a more humble self-image than in past years. True, it may not win the presidency, but there is a good chance that it will win a majority in Parliament. As the post-coup fervor begins to ebb, the real distribution of power in Bolivia is about to rise to the surface.