Between Party and Movements

Under MAS, Bolivia has seen massive decreases in poverty — but its social movements have grown weaker.


In Bolivia, the tale is very similar to what’s going on in Ecuador, but with two fundamental differences. One is that social movements actually put the Evo Morales government into power. It wasn’t as if there was a party that was created afterwards or as a vehicle simply to move a social-democratic or left president into power.

The other, which is fundamental to understanding Bolivia, is that Bolivia is a majority-indigenous country. So the dominant paradigm of struggle within the Bolivian context is the struggle for indigenous rights and indigenous people. Indigenous people have resisted colonization — struggled against the light-skinned elites that have run Bolivia — for over five-hundred years.

Bolivia has long been a mining country, completely dependent on export mining. Whether organized through indigenous unions (or labor unions, since the 1950s) or the more recent coalition of indigenous, neighborhood, and labor organizations, the way that politics is and has been done consistently in Bolivia, perhaps more than almost any other country in the world, is in the streets. This has created a political system in which there may be backroom deals between elites, but any kind of progressive process has almost always occurred when large numbers of people have taken to the streets.

These are the movements that thrust Evo Morales into government. His party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), did not consider itself a political party. It defined itself as the political instrument of social movements, which is a very different political stance than the formation of a left political party.

The government quickly semi-nationalized natural gas production and extended services and infrastructure, particularly for rural poor. It framed a lot of its discourse around concepts of decolonization and buen vivir, “living well,” concepts also used in Ecuador. And it put forward a constituent assembly — or supported the process, which was a demand of the social movements — that came up with one of the most radical constitutions that the world has ever produced, which legislated parity for women and a broad extension of indigenous rights, including indigenous autonomy within the state. Unprecedented numbers of women, indigenous people, and working-class people were appointed to high positions in government, including as ministers.

Eleven years later, Bolivia’s middle class has grown by over a million people — which is 10 percent of the population of about ten million — and both the government and the economy, thanks in large part to the commodity boom, have tripled in size. The government had major successes with conditional cash transfers (CCTs), which have been used widely throughout Latin America by both the Left and the Right. Poverty has dropped by half and income equality, as in Ecuador, has declined by a fifth, a substantial amount in any society.

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