The two weeks since I’ve returned from Bolivia have seen a dramatic development: the country’s largest indigenous organizations are directly challenging Evo’s government. In response, the government has chosen to attack USAID, blaming it for fomenting dissension & division w/in the social movements that have traditionally backed MAS. The logic is fairly simple: No legitimate indigenous group/leader would ever challenge Evo unless he/she/they was/were manipulated by foreign interests. But this argument has several problems.
First, it suggests a dismissive view of indigenous movement leaders/organizations. At best, it makes the claim that those in the government (which is dominated by middle-class, mestizo intellectuals) “know best” the “true interests” of the country’s various indigenous peoples. Any dissent is therefore based on false consciousness that must be corrected. In other words: indigenous groups are children that need to “learn” both what their interests are & what “their place” is w/in the state-society relations (they should be seen, but not heard). At worst, it suggests a cynical view of indigenous leaders/groups as willing to sell out their own interests/communities for the sake of foreign NGO funding. Neither suggests a real faith in indigenous peoples.
Second, this tactic relies on very weak evidence. Sure, there’s a long history of US intervention in Bolivia (as in the rest of Latin America). But that says little about the current projects that are targeted: mainly, USAID funding support (often indirect) for environmental conservation NGOs like Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN), or Foro Boliviano del Medio Ambiente (FOBOMADE). So far the strongest “evidence” that USAID was “infiltrating” these organizations was when Óscar Coca, Minister of the Presidency, showed books published by environmental & indigenous NGOs that were partly financed by USAID. Bolivian books are often published w/ the help of numerous NGOs, which put their logo somewhere on the cover (often there are three or more such logos on a single book). While this demonstrates that USAID had some role in publishing some book, it says little else. Clearly, this kind of evidence is grasping at straws. The government is hoping to use a McCarthy-era tactic to paint a broad stroke by accusing anyone who has ever, under any context, had any contact w/ USAID (or even w/ another NGO that had some previous link to USAID).
Third, and most egregious, is that none of this says anything about the legitimacy of the protesters’ actual claims. And here we have two different kinds of claims by indigenous groups against the government:
- Protests about the environmental impact that natural resource exploitation (primarily oil & gas) on their natural habitat.
- Protests about the government’s refusal to grant their communities indigenous autonomy—particularly if it crosses department lines.
So far Evo’s government has not actually addressed these issues by doing more than arguing that the complaints come from indigenous leaders who’ve been paid off by USAID (they’ve scaled back their attacks on UNDP). So now they face a national march by lowland peoples spearheaded by CIDOB (the organization of lowland indigenous peoples). This is the same group that launched the 1990 “March for Dignity” that launched Bolivia’s modern indigenous movement & was the first real challenge to neoliberalism in Bolivia. CIDOB has mobilized both for environmental concerns (they live in the oil/gas rich areas & have consistently objected to further drilling in their lands, but also demanding that their rights—under the new 2009 constitution—be respected so that they can form autonomous communities. The government objects to this primarily because some of these communities would cross department boundaries, and the government has now clearly stated that department boundaries will be sacrosanct. Odd, since one could make the argument that the department boundaries are clearly “colonial” artifacts that ignore the rights of pre-colonial peoples.
Meanwhile, CONAMAQ (the association of Andean ayllus & indigenous communities) has declared itself in opposition to the government primarily over questions of indigenous autonomy. While Evo’s government has gone further in this regard (including passing a law that puts indigenous communitarian justice on equal footing w/ existing code law), it has done so w/ a clear eye to controlling local governments. The April 2010 municipal elections put a heavy strain on this relationship, as MAS nominated candidates over the objection of local communities/leaders & often campaigned against local leaders. (For example, the municipality of Jesús de Machaca was declared an indigenous autonomous community. In January, using a local holiday, they elected their own leaders using “traditional” community procedures; MAS refused to recognize these, insisted they be elected in the “normal” process of elections, then campaigned against the community’s slate of candidates.) Local-level indigenous leaders are finding Evo to be less “pro-indigenous” than his image would suggest—at least when it comes to granting them political autonomy.
The bottom line is that the government is losing its grip on the indigenous movement. Attacking its leaders as agents of USAID (or US imperialism more broadly) and/or acting in line w/ the “extreme right” seems odd. During the 2005 campaign—and for several months later—Evo & MAS clearly raised the banner of indigenous political autonomy. By doing so, it raised expectations that indigenous groups have patiently waited for & now expect fulfilled. Similarly, the People’s Conference on Climate Change raised the banner of a pro-environmental policy agenda. Indigenous peoples & environmental activists took this as a green light to begin pressing their demands to protect Bolivia’s fragile ecosystems (which happen to be in oil-rich areas).
These last weeks may have irrevocably changed perceptions of Evo’s government. The country has a long experience w/ populist figures who use symbolic rhetoric, but never really “mean it” beyond as a way to strengthen their grip on power. A clear example is René Barrientos, the Quechua-speaking general who ruled Bolivia from 1964-1969 (and famous for capturing/executing Che Guevara). He established the “military-campesino” alliance, frequently mobilizing indigenous militias against his opponents. But, in the final analysis, he never really did much to address indigenous demands. I think increasingly more Bolivians are starting to see echoes of that past in the current government.
None of this will likely threaten Evo’s government, of course. I don’t think Bolivians want to repeat the experience of October 2003 anytime soon. But if Evo & MAS want to win the next round of elections, they might do well to think about the long term consequences of policies aimed at securing short term political hegemony.