- Interview by
- Denis Rogatyuk
- Bruno Sommer Catalan
With barely three weeks left until Bolivia’s rerun general election, the campaigns of both the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and its right-wing opponents are entering full stride. So far, the campaigns of the two main right-wing presidential candidates, Carlos Mesa and Luis Fernando Camacho, have largely focused on staking out ground as the main challenger to MAS, boasting of the role they played in toppling Evo Morales’s government in last November’s coup d’état. But while they have pursued a smear campaign against MAS in the run-up to the October 18 vote — and even denounced mismanagement by postcoup president Jeanine Áñez — they are yet to present any concrete proposals on how to bring Bolivia back from the brink of socioeconomic collapse.
On September 17, Áñez announced that she was dropping out of the presidential race, in a move widely seen as driven by polls showing the lead that MAS enjoys over the divided pro-coup forces. Indeed, a recent poll for right-wing newspaper Página Siete shows that MAS’s presidential candidate Luis “Lucho” Arce is currently set to win the election outright in the first round, with 40.3 percent support; he is followed by Carlos Mesa on 26.2 percent and Fernando Camacho on 14.4 percent. These scores echo the results of a study conducted by the think tank CELAG in June; decisively, a ten-point lead would allow Arce to avoid a runoff, so long as the top candidate takes at least 40 percent of the popular vote.
The ramifications of Áñez’s withdrawal are still unknown. The support she currently holds is likely to be transferred to either Camacho or Mesa — boosting the latter’s chances of preventing a MAS victory in the first round. Yet any endorsement she or her ministers give also carries the political deadweight of almost a year of economic mismanagement, immense corruption, and state terrorism against the country’s social movements.
It has long been speculated that a fair and transparent election is unlikely. Áñez’s government has postponed the contest three times already, and the Organization of American States (OAS) showed already in last October’s contest that it is determined to ensure that MAS does not win. We can expect voter suppression in MAS-voting rural areas, as well as among Bolivians living abroad in Brazil and Argentina. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also has unpredictable ramifications for voter turnout.
The MAS pick for vice president is David Choquehuanca, who served as Bolivia’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2017 and as secretary of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). Running mate to former economy minister Arce, Choquehuanca is recognized as a historic Aymara trade union leader and a leading proponent of suma qamaña (“good living”) political thought among MAS leaders. He sat down with Jacobin’s Denis Rogatyuk and Bruno Sommer to discuss the election and his party’s agenda for government.
We understand that racism and the issue of white supremacy have traditionally been serious problems in Bolivian society, since the time of the invasion and colonization by the Spanish. Recently, we have witnessed attacks against the indigenous population in regions such as Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, by far-right paramilitaries as well as by civic leaders such as Rómulo Calvo of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee. How will MAS respond to this when it returns to power — and why do you think that even some people who themselves have indigenous roots are involved in these attacks?
First, I’ll say that in the language of ancient, ancestral cultures, the word “race” does not exist. There was no racism in ancient cultures, in the culture of life, in our Abya Yala — that’s what our continent is called. There was no discrimination and division on this basis.
The word “race” came with colonialism and the invasion. Many think that we are inferior to Europeans — but that thought has been imposed upon us. We think that those that live in the countryside are inferior to those in the city, that whites are superior to nonwhites, because colonialism has infected us with hatred and individualism. The Church itself says that we cannot have land because we do not have a soul. That colonialist way of thinking is powerful.
Colonialism is based on domination and exploitation. To a lesser or greater degree, there is racism everywhere, and we have to fight against it everywhere. Through the media and through education, they have made us feel ashamed of the best that we have to offer. Many have been forced to change their last name to have access to certain spaces. That is why the peoples of the world struggle against colonialism.
How would you assess the state of the social movements at this moment? Can unions and other activist organizations join with MAS to defeat the regime in October’s elections?
In Bolivia, the social movements have never stopped fighting. Some workers had to go into hiding, many were detained, persecuted, disappeared, and there have been violations of all manner of human rights. But the social movements have been building their unity, little by little, and gradually losing their fear.
In the 1970s, under the dictatorship there was a lot of abuse, violation of human rights, and a lot of corruption, pushing our country into debt. None of our rights were guaranteed. That was until women miners decided to go on a hunger strike: they decided to sacrifice themselves to recover our democracy, and this lit the spark for our people to mobilize. That was how we managed to recover our democracy.
Then came a popular government [of Hernán Siles Zuazo, 1982–85], but people wanted it to solve all the problems that had built up —and do it overnight. That government’s mandate was cut short and then came the dark page of neoliberalism. That meant twenty years during which our strategic state companies and many of our natural resources were handed over to transnationals.
The people, tired of all that, decided for a change. In 2005 a government arrived in power with an indigenous man — Evo Morales — at its head. For fourteen years, we managed to build stability, economic growth, overcome illiteracy, increase our GDP. We can thus speak of the great achievements of what we have called the democratic revolution, the process of decolonization.
We were beginning to industrialize our natural resources, we wanted to industrialize our lithium, we were taking the first steps to industrialize our gas, and suddenly the transnationals began to organize a coup d’état. The other day one of Tesla’s representatives said it: “We have organized the coup with the United States government, and if we feel like it, we can intervene at any time in any other country.”
They are no longer even hiding it. And we know that this coup has been planned jointly with Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organization of American States.
We also have to recognize that in our administration we neglected the promotion of new leaders — and that was true not only in Bolivia, but across our region. But now the social movements are beginning to combine their forces again, and leaders are springing up like mushrooms all over the place, especially among young men and women. Power does not have to be an instrument of abuse — it has to be used to help people, to resolve problems, to govern. Our peoples are once again organizing, combining their forces, above all in the indigenous peasant movement.
This is not just a matter of participating in elections, of recovering our democracy — it goes much further than that. It is about defending our rights to education, health, basic services, freedom of expression, mobilizing our strength. And again, this is being revived from the grassroots.
In the event that the de facto government refuses to hold the elections in October or postpones them again, what do you think the Bolivian people’s reaction will be? How can MAS prepare for this?
I don’t think they will dare to postpone the elections again. [In August] the indigenous peasant movement mobilized because the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) unilaterally changed the election date, using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext. What the social movements have demanded is that the law be respected, that our political Constitution be respected, that the elections be guaranteed, because we need authorities elected by the people. No one is going to accept ones imposed by force. We need legitimate authorities, democratically and peacefully elected by the people, without violence — that’s what the Bolivian people want.
When the people mobilized, the TSE thought twice and decided to set the date of the elections through another law. It had lost credibility, so the people asked for guarantors such as the United Nations, the European Union, even the Church. In this new law that calls for elections on October 18, sanctions have also been established stipulating penalties for anyone who tries to postpone the elections again.
Our neighbors, the international community, want us to have elections. Social organizations, the people, the youth, are organizing themselves to participate in this contest, and these elections have to be a festival of democracy. The TSE has to guarantee transparent, democratic, and peaceful elections, and the winning candidate — no matter who it is — must be respected.
During Evo Morales’s government, it was impressive to see how Bolivia rose to the international stage defending the rights of Mother Earth, helping in the construction of the Patria Grande (“Common Motherland”), and actively challenging the Western world on this front. How do you think Bolivian foreign policy will evolve once MAS returns to power, and what international allies can Bolivia really trust?
We must always respond to what our peoples feel — the last word must always be with them. No leader should believe himself above the people. When we begin to develop proposals, it will be by listening to them. And what they want is Latin American integration — they do not want more division.
Our continent has been disintegrated, dismembered by colonialism. It has divided us and pursued the systematic looting of our natural resources. That is why we are in poor conditions, and that is why we want integration.
We have been part of building Unasur [a bloc for Latin-American unity]. It aims to allow us to speak as equals with other spaces of integration such as the European Union. If we want to sit alone with the EU as Bolivia, they will not listen to us; but if we sit together as Unasur, as a region, they will not only listen to us, but also respect us.
Not only have we promoted integration spaces like Unasur, but also CELAC [the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States]. We need to build, to unite, to get up and stand up for ourselves.
The problem of poverty is global, the energy crisis is global, and we need to face it globally. That is why integration is important. But we have also brought forward proposals that start out from our ancient roots, from resistance like that of Pachamama [Mother Earth], which has withstood five hundred years [of colonial rule].
We took the Pachamama proposal to the United Nations. There, we told the UN the Earth thinks, has eyes, listens, speaks. They immediately said: “But who are these people, telling us that the Earth thinks?” But since we proposed this on behalf of a state, they were forced to schedule it on the UN agenda. And we managed to convince the community of nations.
In 2009, we achieved a universal resolution declaring our Pachamama as Mother Earth. April 22 became International Mother Earth Day — that day, the Earth ceases to be an object, it becomes Mother Earth, it becomes a subject of law. On that basis, the UN has begun to work on defending its rights.
Human beings, plants, and animals are also raised by Mother Earth. That is why we seek harmony with nature, and we managed to incorporate this into the UN’s 2030 Agenda. Now it says: it will no longer be possible to achieve the objectives of sustainable development if we do not take into account the need for such harmony. And we opened up spaces so that indigenous people could be heard by governments.
What kind of political and economic changes would translate the ideology of kapak ñam (“living well”) in a new MAS government?
We indigenous peoples have our path of noble integration, known as kapak ñam. Kapak means a person who lives well; ñam means path. We have decided no longer to walk the roads of the North, of the development that has led to destruction and generated poverty and inequality.
That is why when global leaders meet in social forums and say that “another world is possible,” we indigenous peoples say that our world is possible. Our way is possible because ours has resisted — we still have our kapak ñam. There have been five hundred years of deceit, lies, intrigue, division, uncertainty, darkness. We want to return to the path of light, of truth, of respect for nature.
“Living well” is a global proposal faced with the global crisis of capitalism and one that also relates to our wiphala [rainbow-colored flag]. This is not a flag for a people with borders, for the Aymara, for the Mayan, or for Japanese. Rather, it is the codification of the rainbow, of inclusion, of integration. Each little square is the same, and it tells us that we all complement each other — the architect is not superior or inferior to the bricklayer, the woman is not inferior or superior to the man. It tells us that we are all alike and all different at the same time.
When we talk about “living well,” we are talking about our return to the ayllu [“community”], to the path of balance. There is disorder, the world and us are unbalanced, we are sick, we have been infected by greed, individualism, hatred, racism. “Living well” is saying that we need to heal ourselves, that we need to cast off egocentrism, Eurocentrism, and anthropocentrism.
In 2015 we assumed the presidency of the Group of 77 and China, and we organized a meeting with presidents, ministers, and scientists from more than 130 countries. There, we analyzed the global disorder, the environmental, energy, and financial crisis. And among the conclusions we reached was the need to build a new world order, starting from the South, based on social justice. When we lift our wiphalas we are saying that we want integration, we want unity, we want peace, we want harmony.