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The Price of Populism in Bolivia

By Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán

The outcome of the Bolivian referendum has provided some clues about the challenges for political systems in Latin America. This is the first time that the popular leftist indigenous president Evo Morales was defeated. His attempt to make a constitutional amendment that would allow him to be re-elected for the fourth time and govern for five more years after 2019 was rejected. This episode can not only be considered yet another example of what has been called the “end of the cycle” of socialist governments in the region, but also serve as one of the most important signals that something has to change in the progressive left forces if they really want to transform society. 

What made the popular Bolivian leftist government fail in this national consultation? Is it, as some official versions claim, a crisis provoked by an international conspiracy? Is it a consequence of political or electoral strategy mistakes? Or does this outcome reflect something more about the so-called “democratic and cultural revolution” in the country? 

The Bolivian referendum was called three years before the national elections will take place. The Movement for Socialism (Movimiento Al Socialismo), the political movement led by Morales, did not democratize its political structure with a new generation of representatives, but instead insisted that the only leader capable of guaranteeing the “process of change” is Morales himself. For this reason they promoted a national referendum reinforcing a vision that, in some sense, is drowning Bolivian society. Their populist vision became a kind of permanent test of the affection that people have for an individual—Morales—instead of a conscious and thoughtful commitment to social change. In addition, the Fund for Development for Indigenous and Native People and Peasant Communities, which runs a financial program for social development in indigenous communities, was implicated in a corruption scandal in which local leaders and authorities of the official party were accused of diverting between $10 million and $180 million from public funds. President Morales was also accused of using a personal relationship with a woman, with whom he had a baby in the past, to influence business negotiations with a Chinese corporation that got a $560 million contract by direct invitation from the state. Both cases weakened the official position in public opinion. 

This controversial context made many people vote “No” in the referendum. The “No” voters do not express the traditional right-wing sentiments in Bolivia, as the government insists, but instead express the will of many citizens who are not convinced that the re-election of Morales will ensure a thriving future for their country. Many of them represent left-wing thinkers and activists. In some sense, the vote was a response of the civil society to one of the most critical characteristics of the MAS’s “process of change” in Bolivia: the accumulation of power by a new political elite. 

How did this happen? It seems like nothing has changed in 10 years. But as a society we made strong steps to overcome social discrimination. We built a new constitution with explicit recognition of the indigenous rights and have produced an inspirational narrative about “living well” and the “rights of Mother Earth,” calling out to the world that social change is possible. However, the process of social transformation faced obstacles that weakened democracy. The rise of patronage networks created power dynamics that took local and regional leaders away from their roots and generated a new political elite. 

At the same time, the government’s patriarchal vision of gender relationships became central to this process, with remarkable examples of machismo inside the ruling party, including misogynistic statements and accusations of gender violence against certain members of the party. This motivated campaigns from the feminist movement (such as “machos out of the lists”) calling for non-sexist and non-gender violent candidates in the 2014 national elections in response to the prevalence of violence against women in the country.

The government now has to pay a political price for the gap between progressive narratives and poisonous policies. While defending Pachamama (the earth/time mother of the Andean people) with passionate discourses, the government is pursuing fossil fuel and infrastructure investments by strengthening its alliances with Chinese and Russian corporations for roads, mining, oil, and even nuclear business. As Bolivian officials argue that they are not “keepers of the forest” for the North and condemn any criticism accusing them of being moved by imperialist interests, the country is losing important portions of its forests and is polluting its waters in the search for more oil, gas, and mining reserves, opening up national parks to foreign and local companies. All of this could mean that the nation may be losing its ability to provide the material basis for a society that is “living well.” Bolivia is becoming increasingly vulnerable to climate change, but the leadership’s response is yet another expression of the global schizophrenia that blames capitalism for contamination and, at the same time, contaminates through oil extraction and deforestation.

Grassroots actors on the left and the progressive movement cannot keep walking blindly without reflecting on these critical tensions. Endless economic growth and environmental protection cannot survive together under Bolivia’s current policies, just as the idea of “building socialism using capitalism” will not work. One thing has become clear: it is not enough to have political power without acquiring an ethical commitment to respect democracy, different points of view, and gender dignity. Bolivian society has demonstrated the need for a sincere dialogue on how to continue its social transformation and strive toward equality, justice, and harmony with nature.

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Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán is a Bolivian social psychologist, researcher, author, and activist for human rights, water, and climate justice. She was part of the Blue October Campaign for water as a common, and attended the UNFCCC process as civil society observer. Currently she works as independent essayist and coordinates Trenzando Ilusiones (Weaving Hopes), an initiative for promoting commons and caring values in cultural and economic transitions to sustainable societies.

[Photo courtesy of Eneas de Troya]

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