Bolivia’s Slow Return to Authoritarianism

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Last week, Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia since 2005, announced he would seek a fourth term.  In 2016, Morales had narrowly lost a referendum to end term limits. At first, the President said he would respect the results of the vote but soon decided to file an appeal to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice of Bolivia, claiming that his basic human rights had been violated.  The fact that his case rested upon the language of the American Convention on Human Rights, which he routinely rails against as an imperialist instrument, is ironic, to say the least.

I had had some hope when Morales was first elected that at the very least he would begin the process of rectifying centuries of systematic discrimination against Bolivia’s indigenous population. Long after the encomienda system (essentially, a form of slavery in which native labors were forced to work the land for their Spanish masters) had fallen into disuse, institutional racism and economic exploitation allowed landowners to maintain the indigenous population in subjugation. Even with the return of democracy in the 1980s, many who lived in Bolivia were treated as second-class citizens, despite enjoying full legal rights in theory.  But instead of ushering in a new era of inclusion, Bolivia has remained as divided under Morales.

Subtle Divisions
MAS supporters leaving a rally in Cochabamba

My first run-in with Morales (literally) was in 2011, during Bolivia’s Independence Day celebration. In contrast to the Mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla, who had the time to stop and chat with me and a few others outside a bar, Morales’ bodyguards unceremoniously shoved me up against a wall to make sure the president had the entire street to himself.

Six years into his presidency, the mood in La Paz was changing. Many of the same people who had supported Morales and his left-wing party, Movement to Socialism (MAS), were becoming weary of a growing authoritarianism and the constant anti-imperialist rhetoric. The 2010 passage of a law that prescribed penalties of up to seven years in jail for anything the government deemed racist, particularly, concerned the intelligentsia.  Revilla, who had beaten a MAS candidate the year before to become mayor, was the manifestation of a growing discord with Morales among the urban elite.

Plaza de Armas in the city of Cochabamba

Three years later, I found myself in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city, just ahead of general elections. Cochabamba has always been at the forefront of radical politics. It was here that a state of emergency was declared in 2000 when the city attempted to privatize the waterworks in what would later be known as the “Water Wars.” This event would play a pivotal role in Morales eventual 2005 election to the Presidency. While the violence of those times was gone, the tension was still strong with MAS supporters marching through the street and trucks with loudspeakers blasting their support for Morales down the roads.

None of this was particularly unusual in Latin America, but something did feel different, more oppressive. And the people I talked to seemed on edge. Despite, the government’s claims of pluralism, Bolivians who didn’t identify with Morales Aymara culture, or even worse, no indigenous culture at all, were feeling pressure to conform. As one well-to-do Bolivian woman claimed, Morales had instituted a regime of iconoclasm against anything that was not indigenous.

Although the idea that Bolivia was just a stone’s throw away from burning Spanish literature and hacking apart Virgin Mary statues was undeniably alarmist, her concerns were not altogether wrong. At the Convent of Santa Teresa in Cochabamba, something a young Bolivian woman told me about a rather uninspired work of religious art caught my attention. The painting, supposedly, went unsigned because the Spanish did not consider the native artist to be human. As any art history major would tell you, many works prior to the 19th century went unsigned, especially if it was meant for private religious use as in a monastery. The idea of signing a painting intended for the contemplation of God would strike most Christians at the time as incredibly vain. Her comment not only echoed what I had been hearing from Morales opponents but also something deeper.

The Divisive Roots of MAS
Statue commemorating a victory of Spanish Royalist forces in Tarabuco

In 1970, Bolivian writer and intellectual Fausto Reinaga wrote The Indian Revolution, a call to arms to the native people to take back their country from the “blond beasts.” Reinaga was already well known for his previous support of Marxist principals, but it was his subsequent rejection of communism and anything else coming from the “West” that would make him a central figure in the burgeoning Indigenismo movement.

In The Indian Revolution, Reinaga rails against the university system, the church, even contraception (which he claims was an imperialist plot to reduce indigenous birth rates). Throughout, Reinaga refers to the “racist West,” reinforcing his view that racism is an intrinsic part of “Western thought” all the while extolling the virtues of the Incas who he claims “did not know how to lie; did not know how to steal; did not know how to exploit.” Reinaga even goes as far as to claim that neither prostitution nor poverty existed in Tawantinsuyu (the Quechua name for the Inca Empire). What made these Incas so superior? Reinaga had to tread carefully here, stating that it was their philosophy untainted from the “West” that imbued them with these superhuman traits.

A Bolivian from an indigenous community on his way to the market in Tarabuco

It is unsurprising that Morales and his Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, cite Reinaga as a major inspiration. After all, both grew up in Reinaga’s midst. García even helped found the insurgent Guerrilla Army of Tupac Katari in the 1980s. His influence can be seen both in the government and in society at large, where he is celebrated as one of the country’s quintessential authors.

Which brings us to MAS, originally a Falangist party before its name was taken over by Morales in 1998. Morales is often seen through the same lens as other left-wing politicians in Latin America, like Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, all nefariously aligned with Castro’s Cuba. But this is not entirely true. While Morales promotes some of the same socialist policies as these countries, he roots them in traditional indigenous culture, skillfully appropriating the images of the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilization to consolidate his regime.

Tiwanaku has been an important symbol in the Morales presidency

This rejection of “Western values,” has also led to a number of bizarre policies, some of which are innocuous like setting the clock that adorns the legislature building in La Paz to run backward.  But others, such as encouraging traditional medicine as an alternative to “Western” hospitals, could have serious consequences for the country if taken too far.

This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with celebrating indigenous traditions, or that we can’t learn from the diverse and wonderful cultures that made up pre-Colombian America. The election of Morales has benefited previously marginalized Bolivians by increasing their self-awareness. He has reduced poverty and illiteracy all while maintaining fiscal responsibility, something that we in the “West” would do well to heed.

But there is also something dangerous in retreating into tradition and ignoring competing thoughts and ideologies, especially, in this post-truth world of ours. The concept of the “West” is nothing more than a social construct and “Western values” belong no more to Europe as does Confucianism to China. Ideas belong to humanity. They are, in fact, universal, and if we deny the universality of what makes us the same, then our differences will, undoubtedly, tear us apart.

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