Back to home page
ISR Issue 76, MarchApril 2011
Bolivia today: an exchange
Jeffery Webber’s article, “Bolivia’s reconstituted neoliberalism” (International Socialist Review, September–October 2010), drew a dissenting response from Federico Fuentes, editor of the Bolivia Rising blog and a regular contributor on Latin American politics for Green Left Weekly. Below we print the contribution from Fuentes, followed by Webber’s rejoinder.
Government, social movements, and revolution in Bolivia today
A response to Jeffery Webber
JEFFERY WEBBER believes that “the left-indigenous insurrectionary period” (2000–2005) was derailed by Evo Morales’s election, as “social movements demobilized” and “a moderate political party came to office.” While Morales’s government implements “reconstituted neoliberalism,” Webber believes hope lies in the “episodic strikes and other social movements” which “signal the renewal of collective action from the left of the MAS [Movement Toward Socialism].” Any serious analysis of the dynamic of class struggle under the Morales government clearly contradicts Webber’s view.
Rather than a shift “from rebellion to reform,” the trend has been one of a continuation of class struggle, albeit under different conditions. The Observatorio de Conflictos de CERES notes that no other government since 1970 (when they began collecting data) has experienced a higher number of conflicts.1 Like the conflicts between 2000 and 2005, these have tended to be fragmented, dispersed, and corporative in nature, in part the result of the continued extreme debilitation of the Bolivian Workers Central.2 The October 2003 and May–June 2005 national uprisings, which occurred during periods of extreme polarization, were exceptions. This reflects the growing confidence of the popular movements that the government—or, more specifically, Morales3—is much more likely to listen to their demands than to repress them.
The conflict figures also reflect a rise in right-wing protests against the Morales government. Webber is completely silent on this, and on the September 2008 rebellion, when an alliance of U.S. imperialism, pro-autonomy capitalist elites entrenched in the east, and key figures in the Bolivian military activated a coup attempt. Unleashing a wave of paramilitary violence (including attacks on police officers and soldiers, and the massacre of dozens of peasants in the state of Pando), fascist forces occupied almost fifty buildings belonging to state institutions, closed all airports in the four opposition-controlled eastern states, and shut down gas pipelines to neighboring countries. Large agribusinesses cut food supplies to the majority indigenous population in the west, and key military commanders in the east told Morales they would not obey orders to crush the rebellion.
In response, Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and directly mobilized loyal soldiers to confront the paramilitaries. Simultaneously, and in coordination with the government, an alliance of peasant-indigenous, urban poor, and workers’ organizations mobilized to join with the resistance being waged by the newly emergent urban poor and workers’ organizations that had developed in the poorer areas of Santa Cruz city. With their plan unraveling, and tens of thousands of marchers approaching, the pro-imperialist alliance had no option but to surrender, a defeat they have yet to fully recover from.4
Webber ignores all this because it completely contradicts his argument. The Morales government represents a deepening, not a rupture, of the process that began in 2000. It is the result of the decision made by militant indigenous, peasant, and coca growers’ organizations,5 which had replaced miners as the vanguard of anti-imperialist struggle, to create their own “political instrument.” Faced with a complex and contradictory situation in which movements were able to bring down governments, but not yet replace them,6 the Morales leadership embarked on a strategy for power that combined street mobilizations, electoral campaigning around the key demands of the movements, and corporative negotiations with worker/urban poor/neighborhood-based and middle-class organizations outside the MAS, paving the way for the 2005 election victory.
The result represented the rise of an alternative national project, a new “indigenous nationalism,” deeply rooted in the aspirations of the indigenous peasant-led anti-imperialist alliance converted into a revolutionary movement. One in which Morales undeniably plays a pivotal role in maintaining unity among the diverse sectors. Conscious of the fact that winning government is not the same as taking power and that the right would counterattack, the MAS leadership moved to consolidate its position by expanding its support base. For example, it nurtured the growth of emergent urban poor/workers’ organizations in Santa Cruz, forged in resistance against the eastern capitalist elites. Similarly, it worked hard to win over the military ranks and strengthen nationalist elements at all levels of the military.7 All of which enabled it to defeat the pro-imperialist coup attempt.
Despite the fierce resistance it faced from day one, domestically and internationally, the Morales government has implemented numerous measures: strengthening anti-imperialist alliances with other governments and movements; expanding indigenous rights; eradicating illiteracy; providing greater access to education and health care; and reducing poverty.8 Most importantly, it has fostered a powerful sense of indigenous pride expressed through the now commonplace idea that the most marginalized and oppressed not only can govern the country, but can do so better than those who have come before.
Webber’s misleading claims aside, change has also occurred in the economic sphere, starting with the fact that government policy is no longer dictated from Washington. The Morales government has pursued a line of increasing state intervention, expanding infrastructure, finding alternative trading partners to counter U.S. sanctions and loss of trade preferences,9 dealing with the drop in remittances from overseas, and successfully steering the country through the world economic crisis.10 The response by foreign capital is far from the jubilation that one would expect if the government were implementing “reconstituted neoliberalism.” For example, since the failed coup attempt, net Foreign Direct Investment has plummeted from U.S. $253.2 million in the first quarter of 2008 to U.S. $45 million in the same period in 2010.11
Ignoring the numerous nationalizations and newly created state companies across a variety of sectors, none of which is the result of pressure from below via strikes or occupations, Webber focuses on mining to justify his position; unfortunately the facts prove just the opposite. Although the majority of active mines are in private hands, he points to no struggle for their nationalization because he knows none exists. He mentions peasant and worker struggles against the San Cristobal mine, but evades the fact that there was no proposal from any quarters for its nationalization; there is only a mild call to reform the current neoliberal Mining Code.13 Similarly, Webber provides no evidence of workers’ protests or occupations to demand the nationalization of the Vinto tin smelter (not mine, as Webber says) because there isn’t any, while the case of Huanuni actually points in the opposite direction to Webber’s claim. At Huanuni, miners organized in cooperatives violently attacked workers at the mine in order to take it over for their own private benefit. Morales fired the mining minister, who was aligned with the powerful cooperative sector, which includes some 75,000 miners (who had demanded control of the ministry in return for their support in the 2005 elections); replaced him with a former miners’ union leader, stating “until now we have not complied with the Bolivian people on the issue of mining”; and nationalized Huanuni.13
This interplay of factors can also be seen in the more recent protests against the hike in fuel prices14 and other similar conflicts.15 The lack of any serious threat (for now) from the right, combined with weaknesses and errors on the part of the government and MAS, has further stimulated corporative mobilizations among the MAS base, demanding that “their” government redirect its attention toward resolving their immediate and specific needs.16 This has often been accompanied by internal conflicts between competing organizations, in some cases reflecting competing class forces and ideologies within the process but more generally reflecting internal disputes over power sharing, a constant feature of the MAS and the Morales government.17 In almost all cases, the main peasant confederations have firmly sided with the government, reflecting a certain process of bureaucratization of these organizations.18 Standing above all this, as a mediator between the competing interests, is Morales, whose political intuition continues to reflect the close link he maintains not just with union leaders but directly with the bases, through constant national, regional, and local assemblies. For this reason, criticism is overwhelmingly directed at those around him.19 Furthermore, while some of these were important in shifting government policy to the left, there is no evidence of the emergence of any political challenge proposing a more “revolutionary” or “socialist” strategy opposed to that of the MAS leadership.20 In this context, the problem with the MAS is not that it is a “moderate party,” but rather that it is hardly a party at all. How to go from a MAS, which acts as an amorphous conglomerate of peasant/indigenous/urban poor/worker unions lacking a clear strategic perspective or space to debate the way forward, toward the construction of a mass revolutionary party, is a challenge that must be overcome. But the issue of revolutionary organization is another thing that Webber, like his autonomist cohorts, is silent on.21
It is true that none of this means Bolivia is today socialist, or that it has completely broken out of its position of dependency. But it does mean that important advances have been made by the social movements precisely because they decided to move from resistance to power. Our role is not to tell the Bolivian masses from afar that they are doing it all wrong or that their process is not revolutionary enough; our priority must be to defend the gains of the Bolivian process and help to create the necessary space for its continued advance.
This means placing at the center of our solidarity work opposition to U.S. imperialism’s campaign against the Morales government and the revolutionary movement it rests on. Through its constant destabilization campaign, the U.S. has made clear that its central enemy is the Morales government, which today governs independently of imperialist interests. Mistaking localized corporative struggles—as legitimate as they may be—for the “cutting edge of anti-imperialism struggle” not only means missing who the real enemy is; it ignores the leadership role of the Morales government. It was not pressure from below that made Morales expel the U.S. ambassador (yet to return), boot out the Drug Enforcement Administration, withdraw from the School of the Americas, and campaign against U.S. Agency for International Development funding to social organizations.
Webber’s perspective is not only mistaken; it weakens the struggle to build a global movement that can resist imperialism and help free up space for revolutionary processes to advance away from dependency. A struggle in which the Morales government, forged in revolutionary confrontations and representing the broad aspirations of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, is today playing a vanguard role, as demonstrated by the Cochabamba peoples’ summit on climate change and its recent intervention in the Cancun COP16 summit.
1 Cited in “Los conflictos y la economia” Fundacion Milenio, Informe Nacional de Coyuntura No 26, 17/7/09 and “Los conflictos sociales y el crecimiento economico” Fundacion Milenio, Informe Nacional de Coyuntura No 65, September 17, 2010.
2 As a result of the 1985 defeat suffered by the tin miners, the COB’s historic backbone, and subsequent restructuring of the workforce under neoliberalism, Bolivia’s once all-powerful union confederation is today a shell of its former self, maintaining little more than a symbolic presence in protests. See for example Tom Kruse, “Transicion politica y recomposicion sindical: Reflexiones desde Bolivia” in Enrique La Garza Toledo, Los sindicatos frente a los procesos de transición politica, CLACSO 2001; Alvaro Garcia Linera “Los ciclos historicos de la condicion obrera minera en Bolivia (1825–1999)” in Revista Umbrales, 2000; Alvaro Garcia Linera, Marxa Chavez Leon, Patricia Costas Monje, Sociología de los movimientos sociales en Bolivia: Estructuras de movilización, repertorios culturales y accion politica Diakonia/Oxfam 2005, in particular the chapter on the COB. A good analysis that extends this analysis to the period under the Morales govenrment is developed by Bruno Fornillo “Proletariado minero, nacionalización económica y el reposicionamiento actual de la Central Obrera Boliviana” Polis, Revista de la Universidad Bolivariana, Volumen 8, Nº 24, 2009.
3 During his first term, Morales participated in 2,374 meetings with difference organizations, a figure unimaginable under previous neoliberal governments. Of agreements reached between the government and unions/social organisations, around 75 percent have been carried out. Del Estado Colonial al Estado Plurinacional, Direccion Nacional de Comunicación Social, 2010, 81.
4 For more information on the coup attempt and its defeat see Federico Fuentes, “Bolivia: Indigenous government defies U.S.-backed fascists” Green Left Weekly, September 20, 2008; Federico Fuentes, “Bolivia: Right-wing push to stop change defeated” Green Left Weekly, October 25, 2008; Alvaro Garcia Linera Cómo se derrotó al golpismo Cívico — Prefectural, Discursos y Ponencias Nº 3, Vicepresidencia de la Republica, October 23, 2008; Hugo Moldiz, Bolivia en los tiempos de Evo: Claves para entender el proceso boliviano Ocean Sur, 2009; Stella Calloni, Evo en la mira: CIA y DEA en Bolivia; Walter Vasquez Michel, “Operación Media Luna, el golpe de Estado contra el president Evo Morales” La Epoca, September 28, 2008; Cesar Navarro, Gustavo Torrico, Gabriel Herbas and Rene Martinez, “Golpe civico prefectural marcha en Bolivia con apoyo del Embajador de los EE.UU” La Epoca, September 14, 2008.
5 Principally: the United Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB); the Union Confederation of Colonizers of Bolivia (CSCB), which in 2008 changed its name to Union Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia (CSCIB); the National Federation of Peasant Women of Bolivia (FNMCB), which in 2008 changed its name to National Confederation of Peasant, Indigenous and Native Women of Bolivia (CNMCIOB); and, most importantly, the coca growers federation of the Chapare. This process also involved, though to a lesser extent and in a more complex way, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasusyu (CONAMAQ).
6 Reflected in, among other things, the lack of any serious signs of disintegration within the capitalist army or the emergence of an alternate armed force based on worker/peasant militias that could militarily defeat the capitalist state, as occurred in the 1952 National Revolution.
7 Numerous articles on this issue can be found by searching for “military” at Bolivia Rising (www.boliviarising.blogspot.com).
8 Contrary to Webber’s claim that poverty has not been reduced, figures from the UDAPE note that from 2005 to 2009, the poverty rate dropped 2.3 percent (3.8 percent in rural areas) and extreme poverty dropped 6.3 percent (10.2 percent in rural areas). See “The Bolivian economic performance and investment program 2010–2015” Ministerio de Economia y Finanzas Publicas.
9 Such trade represented 8.3 percent of Bolivia’s exports in 2005. Cited in Mark Weisbrot, Rebecca Ray, and Jake Johnston, Bolivia: The Economy During the Morales Administration, CEPR, 2009.
11 Banco Central de Bolivia. In comparison, public investment increased from U.S. $98.6 million to U.S. $163.5 million in the same period.
12 See for example the booklet Minando el Agua: La mina San Cristóbal - Bolivia produced by the main local peasant organisations FRUTCAS and FSUMCAS. The government itself has already begun drafting a new mining law, in consultation with all sectors.
13 See Bruno Fornillo “Proletariado minero, nacionalización económica y el reposicionamiento actual de la Central Obrera Boliviana”
14 See forthcoming article.
15 For example, workers’ protests for wage increases in May, mobilizations by indigenous organizations from the east in June, and the rebellion in Potosi in October (see Federico Fuentes, “Bolivia: When fantasy trumps reality,” Green Left Weekly, April 22, 2010; Federico Fuentes, “Social Tensions erupt,” Green Left Weekly, August 15, 2010).
16 This was eloquently summed up in a statement made by one of the leaders of the Potosi rebellion, Celestino Condori, “Potosi unconditional[ly] supports the process of change. We are positively jealous that departments that don’t want it, like Santa Cruz, receive more attention than us. In an ungrateful manner, the president goes to this region with diverse projects for investment, but he forgets about those that supported him.”
17 Herve Do Alto and Pablo Stefanoni, “Las ambivalencias de la democracia corporativa,” Le Monde Diplomatique, Bolivian edition, May 2010. As an example, see how indigenous organizations that are constantly announcing their break with the MAS used the last protests to demand their own ministers (See “APG reprueba a 15 Ministros de Morales y Conamaq a 16” Erbol, January 5, 2011).
18 “We will defend this process as we always have, including with our lives….we are the owners of the process of change,” said peasant union leader Roberto Coraite, explaining why the CSUTCB was supporting the removal of subsidies on fuel. “Los campesinos apoyan la nivelación del precio de los carburantes,” Cambio, December 30, 2010.
19 While factory workers’ union leader Vitaliano Mamani accused the minister of economy of being an agent of the right trying to bring down the government, FEJUVE president Claudio Luna said that the measure was the result of ministers “making decisions that are undermining support for the government of president Evo Morales” (See “Fabriles culpan al ministro Arce Catacora por el ‘gasolinazo’” ANF 28/12/10; “Ampliado de FEJUVE El Alto, exige renuncia Vicepresidente Linera y 2 Ministros” Radio Atipiri, December 28, 2010).
20 For example, Webber has described the protests in Potosi as a “break with the MAS” and argues that “the government’s populism will be unable to contain the growing discontent from urban and rural popular classes.” Yet he acknowledges that the demands of the protests were: resolution of a dispute over borders and control of a mineral-rich mountain with neighboring Oruro; installation of a cement factory; reopening of a state-owned metal processing plant; preservation of the over-mined Cerro Rico; an international airport; and more highways. It is hard to see how this represents a break with “populism,” let alone capitalism (see Jeffery Webber, “The rebellion in Potosí: Uneven development, neoliberal continuities, and a revolt against poverty in Bolivia” Upside Down World, August 16, 2010).
21 While Webber refers to “three principal intellectual camps” in Bolivia, the third group is made up of a disparate group that include intellectuals living outside of Bolivia, at least half of whom self-identify as anarchists/autonomists (Raquel Gutierrez Aguilar, Raul Zibechi, Forrest Hylton, Sinclair Thomson); local autonomists (Jorge Viana); the editorial board of a magazine that promotes “dispersed originary indigenous anti-power visions,” according to its first issue (the list of contributors to Willka); and a group of researchers linked to the same NGO (CEDLA—Enrique Ormachea Saavedra, Lorgio Orellanoa Aillon, Silvia Escobar de Pabon).
Fantasies aside, it’s reconstituted neoliberalism in Bolivia under Morales
A rejoinder to Frederico Fuentes
FREDERICO FUENTES has done important work in Latin America over the last number of years, bringing to the Anglophone world regular updates and translations from Caracas on Venezuelan developments, maintaining an important news resource on Bolivia, http://boliviarising.blogspot.com/, and providing analytical dispatches to the Australian newspaper, Green Left Weekly. In Caracas, he has worked closely with Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker and the Canadian Marxist Michael Lebowitz—both of whom have acted as advisers to Hugo Chávez—at the Centro Internacional Miranda. Fuentes also recently joined the editorial board of Marea Socialista, or Socialist Tide, in my estimation the best single source of commentary on the unfolding political processes in Venezuela under Chávez. As an activist, furthermore, Fuentes has participated in vital educational work on the Bolivarian process through lecture tours in Australia and Canada, and probably a host of other destinations of which I am unaware.
I have every respect, then, for the passion and commitment that Fuentes brings to our discussion of the Bolivian conjuncture. It is all the more regretful, given this background, that in his response to my article, Fuentes frequently levels petty charges of intellectual dishonesty against me, and alleges that I willfully conceal evidence when and where it contradicts my pre-established views of Morales. I am also, apparently, guilty by association with “autonomists”—and others on the far left with whom Fuentes clashes—of naive politics that lack the sort of strategic clarity that Fuentes brings to the table.
The initial two paragraphs of Fuentes’s response constitute the opening salvos of a polemic informed by historical amnesia and, at its worst moments, parochial sectarianism. He claims, at the outset, to introduce my view on class struggle under Morales, which is then juxtaposed with his more serious alternative. Three problems quickly emerge.
First, the quotation of my work in the first paragraph of Fuentes is selective in the extreme. It seeks, furthermore, to lay the basis for a problematic that then runs throughout Fuentes’s piece—the notion that I somehow overestimate the potentialities of a revolutionary left emerging spontaneously, or even having already emerged in full form, outside of the MAS [Movement Toward Socialism] in contemporary Bolivia. Here is how Fuentes quotes me:
While Morales’ government implements “reconstituted neoliberalism,” Webber believes hope lies in the “episodic strikes and other social movements” which “signal the renewal of collective action from the left of the MAS.” Any serious analysis of the dynamic of class struggle under the Morales government clearly contradicts Webber’s view.
Here is the original passage in my article (with emphasis added) from which Fuentes has selected:
Class contradictions inherent to the development model are slowly generating cracks and conflict, expressed in episodic strikes and other social movements such as those in the Colquiri mining district in 2009, and the teacher, factory worker, miner, and health care worker strikes of May 2010. These may signal the renewal of collective action from the left of the MAS, something that could very well grow in the near future so long as the Morales administration continues to pursue an economic model based on reconstituted neoliberalism.
The relevance of this context is that I am quite explicit in avoiding exaggeration—“slowly generating,” “may signal,” “so long as,” etc.—regarding the strength and immediate potential of existing popular class capacities to forge an independent path to the left of the MAS, while at the same time highlighting the real—and, indeed, obvious—conflicts that the MAS’s reconstituted neoliberalism has begun to generate, and is sure to deepen in the future if it does not change the course of its political economic strategy. Where does Fuentes stand in relation to the waves of strikes I mentioned, on the side of the workers or on the side of Morales? It cannot be both.
Along similar lines, Fuentes later draws out the logic he has inventively inserted into my analysis through selective quotation, implicitly suggesting that I believe there is currently an articulated revolutionary and socialist project to the left of the MAS. If only this was the case! Fuentes notes, as though challenging my perspective, that “there is no evidence of the emergence of any political challenge proposing a more ‘revolutionary’ or ‘socialist’ strategy opposed to that of the MAS leadership.” Footnote 21 purports to offer an example of my delusions in this regard. In the note, Fuentes is skeptical that the Potosí revolt was in any way a “break” with the MAS on the part of those protesting. I wonder how he would better describe a massive, politicized general strike that shut down a strategic corridor of the country for an extended period, and which was rooted geographically in a department where 80 percent of the citizenry had voted for the MAS in the last elections, but which subsequently felt betrayed by various neoliberal continuities in MAS economic policy. I can report that at the height of that particular crisis, the masista officials involved in negotiating an end to the strike, with whom I was sharing an SUV ride across La Paz, certainly saw it in those terms. Still, neither the masistas nor myself ever described this as a revolutionary or socialist break.
With this in mind, the rest of footnote 21 is simply disingenuous. “It is hard to see,” Fuentes reports, “how this represents a break with ‘populism,’ let alone capitalism.” Fuentes’s readers could be forgiven for assuming that in the article he is citing I had actually argued that the Potosí rebellion broke with “capitalism.” Of course, I did nothing of the kind. There is a disturbing tendency here, repeated elsewhere in Fuentes’s text, whereby we witness a creative extension into fantasy from kernels of my actual theoretical and political positions. These ethereal creations of Fuentes then become his central theater of battle, in which he courageously smashes arguments I’ve never made.
Returning to the opening paragraphs of Fuentes’s response, the second problem that presents itself is a banal truism, posing as theoretical innovation, with which I am in ostensible disagreement: “The trend,” after Morales assumed office, Fuentes writes, “has been one of a continuation of class struggle, albeit under different conditions.” Literally, not a single Marxist would disagree. Nor, obviously, do I pretend this isn’t the case.
A voice from the palace
But a third problem raises its head in these opening paragraphs, an area of real discord between myself and Fuentes, when he attempts to explain those “different conditions.” Fuentes’s first analytical move is an inexplicable shift to depoliticized number-crunching. He introduces figures of “conflicts”—whatever that means—collated by the CERES [Centro de Estudio de la Realidad Economica y Social] think tank, figures which are supposed to reveal a steady uptick in popular class mobilizations since 2000, indeed increasing in intensity under Morales. These figures obscure more than they unveil without a clear political analysis and contextualization. A crude empiricism is also evident in footnote 4, where we learn of 2,374 meetings between Morales and undifferentiated social organizations, and 75 percent of “agreements” with social organizations being carried out by Morales. There is no substance here whatsoever as to the nature of the meetings or the class character of the agreements, and I would argue this marks a first low point in his response to my article, where Fuentes becomes little more than an uncritical spokesperson for the Presidential Palace in La Paz. These are precisely the kind of empty statements we hear from every trivial address of state officials to the Bolivian public.
Moreover, while Fuentes wants to tell a story of perpetually rising class struggle since 2000, albeit under different conditions, he is at the same time wedded to the idea that the MAS plays a pivotal leadership role from above to an otherwise rudderless band of localized social movements. Thus, he argues that the “conflicts” cited by CERES are indicative of what is still “fragmented, dispersed and corporative” popular struggles in the Morales epoch. In a bid for consistency, this is how Fuentes describes the preceding 2000 to 2005 period as well—as fragmented, dispersed, and corporative—apart from the inexplicable anomalies of the 2003 and 2005 Gas Wars.
There are layers of confusion and internal contradiction to this approach. To put it bluntly, Fuentes is out of his depth in this entire section, as he attempts to chart the last decade of Bolivian politics. There is quite literally no evidence in the historiography of the period that supports his casual assertions—dismissals in large part—of the unprecedented left-indigenous insurrectionary cycle between 2000 and 2005. It makes sense, then, before proceeding, to revisit this history very briefly.
What really happened in Bolivia between 2000 and 2005?
In my original article for ISR, I accurately described the 2000 to 2005 cycle of insurrection as follows:
Bolivian popular movements have been at the cutting edge of resistance to neoliberalism in Latin America in recent years. Latin America, in turn, has been the region of the world most militantly opposed to the social depravities of neoliberalism. Radical left-indigenous movements rose up in an insurrectionary cycle with a breadth and intensity unparalleled in the Western hemisphere in the first five years of the current century. The popular upheavals of the Water War against privatization in 2000 turned the tide against the previous fifteen years of right-wing assault.... This was followed by the ousting of two neoliberal presidents in the Gas Wars of 2003 and 2005, through mass extra-parliamentary insurrections—Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa, respectively, were tossed out in the course of these street battles. All this laid the basis for Evo Morales’s successful bid to become the country’s first indigenous president, as leader of the MAS, in the December 2005 elections.
This is not the stuff of fragmentation, localism, or corporatism. However, readers need not take my word for granted. Perhaps there is no better authority, no authority that Fuentes could have a more difficult time dismissing as an outsider to his camp politically, than the current vice president of the country. “Since the turn of the millennium,” Álvaro García Linera contends, “this relationship of forces has been challenged from below, and the guaranteed elitism of the ‘neoliberal-patrimonial state’ thrown into question, as new forms of organization and politicization have reversed the footing of the subaltern classes.” García Linera goes so far as to (correctly) characterize the period between 2000 and 2005 as a revolutionary epoch in Marx’s terms:
It was Marx who proposed the concept of the “revolutionary epoch” in order to understand extraordinary historical periods of dizzying political change—abrupt shifts in the position and power of social forces, repeated state crises, recomposition of collective identities, repeated waves of social rebellion—separated by periods of relative stability during which the modification, partial or total, of the general structures of political domination nevertheless remains in question.... The present political period in Bolivia can best be characterized as a revolutionary epoch. Since 2000, there has been a growing incorporation of broader social sectors into political decision-making (water, land, gas, Constituent Assembly) through their union, communal, neighborhood or guild organizations; there has been a continual weakening of governmental authority and fragmentation of state sovereignty; and there has been an increasing polarization of the country into two social blocs bearing radically distinct and opposed projects for economy and state.Nefarious silences
García Linera’s view on these matters is widely representative of serious scholarship on the period. Sinclair Thomson, Forrest Hylton, James Dunkerley, Adolfo Gilly, and Oscar Olivera are just a few of the authors whose work—from different perspectives—is available in English and broadly corroborates the framework outlined in the passage above. Again, there is no doubt that we can continue the debate on these matters, but Fuentes will have to do better than simply to ignore the existing scholarship.
As if to inoculate his position against critique from the left, Fuentes presents his anti-imperialism and anti-fascism as if they are somehow much purer, much less diluted, than my own tenuous allegiance to, or understanding of, these matters.
I am accused, for example, of silence regarding the September 2008 right-wing coup attempt in Bolivia. I must have known about it, Fuentes surmises, but deliberately concealed the information from ISR readers. “Webber is completely silent” on right wing protests and “the September 2008 rebellion” Fuentes complains. “Webber ignores all this,” furthermore, “because it completely contradicts his argument.” The conspiracy of omission I orchestrated in this regard will be news to readers of ISR, as well as Counterpunch and Znet, the main media outlets for which I detailed the rearticulation of the bourgeois autonomist right in the eastern lowlands—for which the MAS bears considerable responsibility—and vehemently condemned it in August and September 2008, i.e. before, during, and after the coup attempt. These issues are also discussed in depth in my new book, From Rebellion to Reform (Haymarket, March 2011).
No novice to the constraints of journalistic analysis, Fuentes could be expected to know that the failure to cover this or that issue in a single article does not necessarily condemn the author to willful deceit—particularly when the author has dealt with the issue at length elsewhere, in articles freely and widely available.
The economics of reconstituted neoliberalism
If historical accuracy is wanting in Fuentes’s response, any precise delineation of Bolivia’s political economy proves equally elusive. This does not prevent him from admonishing me for “misleading” people on Bolivia’s economic realities under Morales, and categorically rejecting my conclusion that Bolivia’s political economy today represents a paradigmatic case of reconstituted neoliberalism.
He dismisses that argument without so much as a word on my extended discussion of international trends toward neostructuralism and neoinstitutionalism and Bolivia’s positioning within these patterns. Obviously I don’t claim to have closed the case, and there are ample debates to be opened and developed further. However, the level of seriousness has to rise several notches above Fuentes rhetorical hand-waving.
“Contrary to Webber’s claim that poverty has not been reduced,” Fuentes notes in footnote 9 of his response, the “poverty rate dropped 2.3 percent (3.8 percent in rural areas) and extreme poverty dropped 6.3 percent (10.2 percent in rural areas).” Here, Fuentes draws on data unavailable to me at the time my text was composed (I had reliable figures only up to 2007). I wrote the following in my original article, in footnote 21: “It is possible that poverty levels have improved since 2007, and it should also be noted that these figures do not take into account improvements in the social wage of workers and peasants—i.e., any improvements in social services for the poor.” So was it me then, or is it Fuentes now, who is “misleading”?
In any case, the new figures Fuentes provides only substantiate the central claim I made in my original article on the question: “The social consequences of reconstituted neoliberalism...have almost no change in poverty rates under Morales, and deep continuities in social inequality. Both of these axes persist as monumental obstacles standing in the way of social justice in the country.” Unless Fuentes believes Kirchner in Argentina was a revolutionary—poverty rates in that country decreased much more rapidly than in Bolivia, as a result of precisely the same commodities boom that affected Bolivia between 2003 and 2008—we can hardly be impressed at the performance of Morales, whose government is said by Fuentes to be playing a “vanguard role” in the Bolivian people’s liberation.
Fuentes simply has no reasonable response to the Morales regime’s commitment to fiscal austerity, low inflationary growth, central bank independence, labor market “flexibility,” inconsequential “agrarian reform,” vast accumulation of international reserves, low social spending, alliance with transnational capital across all sectors of the economy, alliance with “patriotic” sections of the eastern lowland bourgeoisie, export-oriented capitalism premised on low-wage labor, documented increases in rates of exploitation of the working class, state investment amounting to only 32 percent of total investment, with a maximum official goal of 36 percent, and so on and so forth. This, as I explain in my original article, is reconstituted neoliberalism. Fuentes’s discussion of mining is incorrect in every dimension, apart from my error at calling Vinto a mine rather than a smelter. I devote an entire chapter to struggles for nationalizing the mines in From Rebellion to Reform. The alleged nonexistence of these struggles in Fuentes’s view is about as convincing as his understanding of the 2000 to 2005 period of left-indigenous insurrectionary revolt.
Fuentes descends into bottom-feeder sectarianism in footnote 22, where, in a dismissive puff of pretension, we are asked effectively to ignore the work of some of the leading radical intellectuals of indigenous liberation, heterodox Marxism, and classical Marxist political economy working on Bolivia. Their weaknesses stem from “currently living outside of Bolivia”—including Raquel Gutiérrez who, in spite of spending five years in a Bolivian prison for her guerrilla activities with Álvaro García Linera and Felipe Quispe, apparently doesn’t count as sufficiently Bolivian to be a part of the domestic intellectual scene—their association with “anarchism” or “autonomism,” or their alleged “NGO” linkages. Fuentes is either ignorant or deliberately engaged in obfuscation on these issues. He relies on the epithet “NGO” in order to avoid an asymmetrical encounter with the systematic Marxist political economy generated by leading intellectuals in sociology and economics at the Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (Centre for Labor and Agrarian Development Studies, CEDLA). A reader relying on Fuentes could be forgiven if they imagined CEDLA to be a World Bank, USAID connected, promoter of micro-finance, rather than a hotbed of Marxist intellectual production with organic links to the rank and file of the Bolivian labor movement.
I am said to belong to a cohort of autonomists who don’t understand, or who are uninterested in revolutionary organization. “But the issue of revolutionary organization is another thing that Webbemr,” Fuentes suggests, “like his autonomist cohorts, is silent on.” First, unlike Fuentes, I don’t dismiss entire traditions because I disagree with them on some central strategic questions. There is much for revolutionary Marxists to learn from Latin American anarchism and autonomist Marxism. Second, Fuentes crucially misunderstands the fact that I don’t see the MAS as a revolutionary socialist party for a position against revolutionary socialist parties per se.
Again, I didn’t have the space to tackle everything in the article for ISR, but elsewhere, on the 2005 Gas War, for example, my position is quite clear. Are these the words of an autonomist inattentive to revolutionary strategy?
Despite its impressive capacity to mobilize and its far-reaching anticapitalist and indigenous-liberationist objectives, however, the left-indigenous bloc lacked a revolutionary party that might have provided the leadership, strategy, and ideological coherence necessary to overthrow the existing capitalist state and rebuild a new sovereign power rooted in the self-governance of the overwhelmingly indigenous proletarian and peasant majority. As a consequence, the fallout of the extraordinary mobilizations and profound crisis of the state witnessed during the gas war was not a revolutionary transformation but a shift in popular politics from the streets and countryside to the electoral arena as elections were moved up to December 18, 2005.
What does anti-imperialism look like?
Lastly, there is the issue of anti-imperialism. My position is clear in the original article:
From my perspective, the first priority of activists in the Global North should indeed be to oppose imperialist meddling anywhere. This means, concretely, opposition under any circumstances to imperialist-backed destabilization campaigns against Morales. But the political situation is too complicated to end our discussion at that stage. Our first allegiance ought to be with the exploited and oppressed themselves, rather than any leaders or governments who purport to speak in their name.
Fuentes seems to want, instead, to end the discussion just when it starts to get complicated. Better to ignore the reproduction of established patterns of reconstituted neoliberalism and capitalist class rule in Bolivia in his view. If you bring it up, you’re liable to face charges of playing the role of intrusive outsider. “Our role is not to tell the Bolivian masses from afar that they are doing it all wrong,” says Fuentes (I’ll let the readers of my original article judge for themselves if that was what I was doing), “or that their process is not revolutionary enough; our priority must be to defend the gains of the Bolivian process and help to create the necessary space for its continued advance.” Fuentes sees agency in the state, with Morales and his government as the vanguard of change. I see, on the contrary, agency toward socialism and indigenous liberation coming from below, from the self-activity of the oppressed and exploited themselves. When the latter runs up against the capitalist logic of the state apparatus currently occupied by the Morales administration, my perspective is to align myself with the workers, the landless, and the poor peasantry. That’s a stronger anti-imperialism, and the only realistic route to internationalist anti-capitalism.