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date: 28 May 2017

Evo Morales and Bolivian Politics in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Summary and Keywords

Evo Morales Ayma was elected president of Bolivia in December 2005, taking office in January 2006. He has since been reelected on two separate occasions, in 2009 and 2014. Like Lula in Brazil, Morales is one of the few Latin American leaders to emerge from truly humble origins, a trait that helps explain his lasting popularity with a largely poor and indigenous voting public. The evolution of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Morales’s party, had its roots in the struggles to resist the United States–inspired “war on drugs” in the late 1990s, yet it managed to broaden the scope of its appeal to involve a range of social movements, both rural and urban, using the defense of natural resources as a leitmotiv to bring together disparate groupings. In government, Morales sought to engineer an abrupt change from neoliberal policies pursued by elite-led civilian administrations since the 1980s, reasserting the role of the state in development, bringing the all-important hydrocarbons industry back into public control, speeding up land reform, introducing a constitution that reasserted indigenous rights, and enacting policies designed to redistribute income and combat poverty.

A polemical figure, Morales has attracted adulation from supporters and bitter criticism from opponents. Scholarship has reflected this polarization. Conservative critics, at one end of the spectrum, have tended to stress the authoritarian features of his government and its disdain for democratic niceties; Marxists at the other end tend to see it as an exercise in pale reformism that has left the power structure in Bolivia largely intact. In between, of course, there are a variety of intermediary positions that draw out both the achievements and limitations that this article seeks to assess.

Keywords: Evo Morales, Bolivia, Movimiento al Socialismo, constitutional reform, coca, ethnicity, Santa Cruz, land reform, social policy, natural gas, indigenous rights, protest, extractivism, nationalization


In December 2015, Evo Morales became the longest-serving president in Bolivia’s republican history, outstripping Mariscal Andrés de Santa Cruz (1829–1839). His government, which began in January 2006 and was subsequently reelected twice, thus brought unaccustomed stability to a country that had previously been a byword for chronic instability; it also brought a similarly unusual period of economic growth, which helped more than double GDP per capita in this, South America’s poorest nation. The son of an indigenous peasant family, Morales’s leadership contrasted strongly with the privileged backgrounds of most of his predecessors, and his governments gave access to office for many with similarly humble backgrounds. But how radical was the so-called process of change, and to what extent did it lead to a transformation of Bolivia’s politics and its economy? Several authors point to the continuities with earlier periods of Bolivian history, in particular with the period of “revolutionary nationalism” that followed on from the 1952 revolution. Others point to the government’s failure to break with Bolivia’s economic dependency on extractive industries, and its dependence on the rents to which these give rise.

Morales and the Rise of the MAS

Evo Morales was born into a poor Aymara-speaking peasant family in the village of Isallavi near the small town of Orinoca in the department of Oruro on October 26, 1959. His early life mirrored that of many Bolivians, a factor that is important in explaining the legitimacy he was later to enjoy in public life and as president of Bolivia. At a young age, he migrated with his family to work on the sugar harvest in Jujuy, northern Argentina. Back in Bolivia, he received a rudimentary education, excelling as a trumpet player and on the football field. As an adolescent, he was drafted into the army, before eventually—like many of his peers at the time—migrating with his family to the Bolivian tropics in search of a better future.1 The Chapare district of Cochabamba attracted many because of the rapid expansion of coca farming, itself responding to the boom in world demand for cocaine. But this was also a time when the United States–sponsored “war on drugs” was in the ascendant, prompted in part by the brief take-over of Bolivia by the drug-trafficking mafia following a military coup in 1980. By the mid-1990s, the Chapare had become a militarized battleground in which the army sought to eliminate coca growing by force and the coca farmers (cocaleros) felt they had no option but to defend their source of sustenance.2

The strength of that resistance owed much to the traditions of peasant unionism dating from the 1950s, if not before. The Chapare also attracted many displaced mineworkers who lost their jobs in the tide of economic liberalization that swept Bolivia in the second half of the 1980s, who brought with them their traditions of syndicalism and working-class militancy. The cocaleros of the Chapare organized themselves into six union federations, a tightly organized structure that commanded total loyalty among the peasant producers. The strength of the union lay in its control over the distribution of land: every owner had to be a member of the local sindicato. The vast majority of settlers were migrants from the highlands, whether Aymara speakers or Quechua, but Quechua was the dominant language of the Chapare.

The cocaleros formed an important part of the wider peasant movement, represented at the national level by the Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia. The CSUTCB had first emerged in the late 1970s, embodying two traditions: the class-based union tradition of Bolivia’s miners and peasants, and a newer ethnically defined tradition associated with the Kataristas, a movement that gained sway in peasant politics during the 1970s. As elsewhere in Bolivia, there was (and is) a close correlation in the Chapare between ethnicity and class; all peasant producers were poor, and most were indigenous in ethnic origin. The cocaleros encapsulated this duality of ethnicity and class, and, as Xavier Albó has observed, the overlap between the two was almost complete.3 The coca leaf (with its importance in indigenous culture and religion) was adopted as the symbol of ethnic and class resistance in a struggle for survival against an external enemy. Among the social movements to make their presence felt at this time, the cocaleros of the Chapare were among the most forceful and best organized.

This, then, was the world in which Evo Morales emerged as a prominent organizer and union leader. The origins of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) go back to the early 1990s, but it was in 1995 that a political organization—then known as the Asamblea por la Soberanía de los Pueblos—came into being to complement the union structure of the six federations by giving it a political voice. In the 1997 elections, the ASP won four seats in congress, having received the wholehearted support of the Chapare cocaleros. The MAS emerged prior to the 1999 municipal elections, following a split in the ASP, with Evo Morales its main leader. Its full title was the MAS-Instrumento Político para la Soberanía de los Pueblos, a title that sought to differentiate it from the traditional party labels of the time by defining itself as the “political instrument” of the peasant farmers of the Chapare. Taking advantage of a vacuum in support for discredited traditional parties, the MAS proved itself able to attract sympathy far beyond the confines of the Chapare. In the 2002 elections, much to the surprise of electoral commentators, the MAS was only narrowly pipped at the post by the long-established Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) and its candidate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. It won nearly 21 percent of the vote, as opposed to the MNR’s 22.5 percent.

The decline in support for traditional parties took place in a context of the emergence of assertive, popular-based social movements across Bolivia, reflecting in particular the defense of natural resources from inroads of market-led neoliberal policies. Emblematic was the so-called water war in Cochabamba, which ended in defeat for the then Banzer government’s privatization of water and sanitary services in Bolivia’s third-largest city. The MAS managed to ride the wave of protest against neoliberal polices, providing a discourse that was at once nationalistic and ethnically based. The wave of protest culminated in 2003 with the so-called gas war in El Alto, which forced the ouster of Sánchez de Lozada, opening the way to a new period in Bolivian politics.4 Though the MAS was not actively involved in the gas war, it was to be its great beneficiary.

The progress of popular organization against a government thus gathered pace in the period leading up to the “gas war,” with the governments of Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga (2001–2002) and Sánchez de Lozada (2002–2003) unsuccessfully defending a liberal economic model that increasingly failed to meet the expectations it had originally sought to arouse. Growth had faltered, living standards were falling, and unemployment was on the rise. At the same time, the political pacts that had underpinned economic policy since the mid-1980s were rapidly unraveling, creating a political vacuum. A number of leaders had sought to take advantage of the space that was opening up, but it was Morales and the MAS—the self-declared enemies of neoliberalism and defenders of Bolivia’s sovereignty against U.S. interference—that captured the public imagination. The 2002 presidential and legislative elections resulted in Morales becoming, de facto, the leader of the opposition to Sánchez de Lozada, and the MAS becoming the main opposition bloc in congress with eight seats in the senate and twenty-seven in the lower house.

The collapse of the Sánchez de Lozada regime in October 2003 led to a sort of interregnum in which Carlos Mesa (hitherto vice-president) took over until 2005, when he was briefly succeeded on his resignation by Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, the president of the supreme court. It was Rodríguez’s job to organize fresh elections, which took place in December 2005. Over this period of time, the MAS became the dominant organization with its foothold in both the legislature and the country’s social movements. Upholding the so-called October Agenda, the set of demands that accompanied the fall of Sánchez de Lozada, the party became synonymous with the demand for change. Its influence over government was made manifest by the shift of direction in the anti-drugs policy of previous years in favor of a more permissive approach. It was also the force of the MAS that pushed the Mesa administration into a U-turn on Bolivia’s policy toward foreign investment in the oil and gas sector with the 2005 Hydrocarbons Law. It was Mesa’s last-minute reluctance to promulgate the law, itself the result of a preceding referendum, that forced his resignation. Still, despite its breakthrough in 2002, the MAS as a party was still poorly coordinated in terms of national organization. Although in the 2004 municipal elections it did far better than in the previous ones in 1999, it was still far from being a consolidated political force, especially in the urban milieu. It failed to win the municipal elections in any of Bolivia’s main cities in the local elections of 2004.

Morales and the “Process of Change”

Evo Morales and the MAS won the December 2005 elections with a resounding 54 percent of the popular vote. The MAS won a majority of seats in the chamber of deputies and only narrowly missed a majority in the senate, where the rules favored the smaller, more conservative departments. For the first time in living memory, a single party had won a plurality of votes, obviating the need for a subsequent confirmation vote in the congress.5 Those elected to congress in 2005 brought a sudden influx of new faces to the legislature, persons of lowly, indigenous origin who owed their success to their role in social movements and their support for the cause of Morales and the MAS. However, the victory of the MAS in the elections also owed much to the widening of the net in terms of attracting support, and the parliamentary lists also included a good number of people from urban, middle-class, and professional backgrounds, the so-called invitados.6 By the 2005 elections, the MAS had thus become more than just a preponderantly peasant organization; its electoral success owed much to broadening its appeal to a whole range of sectors. The evolution of the MAS contrasts with that of the Movimiento Indígena Pachakutí (MIP), another pro-indigenous party, led by Felipe Quispe, which appealed to a much narrower community of followers with a more strident pro-indigenous discourse. The MIP had no such electoral success.The MAS thus combined different ideological elements that infused the more traditional left with the appeal to indigenous values. In his inaugural speech to congress on his accession in January 2006, Evo Morales extolled the traditions of Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, and Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz7 as well as those of Túpac Katari, Bartolina Sisa, and Zárate Willka8. The MAS thus spoke both the language of class and of ethnicity.

The “process of change” enunciated by Morales and the MAS had, to a large extent, already been formulated in 2003 in the October Agenda. It embodied, among other things, three main interrelated programmatic objectives: a rewriting of the constitution so as to include within it a range of indigenous rights, the re-nationalization of the hydrocarbons industry that had been privatized by Sánchez de Lozada in the mid-1990s,, and more generally the reversal of the neoliberal model inherited from the past with a view to defending Bolivia’s “economic sovereignty.”

The elaboration of a new constitution had long been a demand of pro-indigenous organizations, particularly those of the eastern lowlands that had staged a number of protest marches from 1990 onward. The previous constitution dated from 1967, though it had been amended several times since then. Among the first acts of the new government was to call for elections to a constituent assembly to draft the new constitution. The elected assembly began its deliberations in August 2006, dominated by delegates from the MAS and social movements but lacking the two-thirds majority needed to approve the new document.9 Although the debate over the constitution took much longer than originally planned and significant concessions had to be made to accommodate the conservative opposition, agreement was finally reached toward the end of 2008. The text was put to a referendum in January 2009 and approved by 62 percent of those who voted.

The 2009 constitution has been widely lauded for the extension of rights to indigenous peoples. Symbolically, it replaced Bolivia’s official title as a “republic” by calling it a “plurinational state,” a state composed of numerous ethnic “nations.” It evoked traditional indigenous values, like ama qhilla, ama llulla, and ama suwa (don’t be lazy, don’t lie, don’t steal) and gave pride of place to the notion of Vivir Bien (living in harmony with both neighbors and with nature). Article 30 refers to rights of territory, culture, intercultural education, consultation (in instances of resource extraction), participation in the benefits of natural-resource exploitation, and to self-government within indigenous territories. Article 31 holds the state responsible for protecting indigenous “nations” and for those living in isolation. The constitution also provided special representation in congress for indigenous peoples (though not as much as had originally been offered), guaranteed the use of traditional forms of justice in accordance with customary practice (usos y costumbres), and afforded these rights also to Afro-Bolivian communities. With the new constitution, Bolivia became the first country to codify into domestic law the various stipulations contained in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The October Agenda included a commitment to the re-nationalization of oil and gas, a process initiated with the Hydrocarbons Law passed in 2005. In May 2006, the new government announced plans to complement the law by forcibly changing the contracts with international companies from production association to service contracts. It also increased sharply the amount of tax that the companies would be obliged to pay. Reluctantly, the companies agreed to these new terms within the six-month ultimatum they had been issued. Finally, the government managed to increase (albeit slightly) the rate of payment that had previously been agreed with Brazil. The result was that the state-owned Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) became once more a principal actor in the industry, having been turned into a paper entity by the reforms of the 1990s. Secondly, the state became solvent for the first time, following decades of fiscal deficits funded only by aid flows or drawdown of debt. Bolivia also profited in these years from the high price of oil to which the price of its gas exports were tied.

While at first the state sector found itself unable to spend the new resources at its disposal, gradually Bolivia was able to ramp up public investment, generating both increased economic potential and helping to create gainful employment. Road-building programs, for example, generated plentiful new job opportunities. The government also introduced a number of spending programs designed to tackle deeply rooted poverty. These included two conditional cash transfer (CCT) schemes aimed at nursing mothers and families with school-aged children, as well as a significant expansion of an existing universal pension scheme (which became known as the Renta Dignidad). Within the gas industry itself, the installation of piped domestic gas supplies significantly reduced people’s household energy bills. The consequence of these policies was to help achieve a sharp decline in poverty rates, the result of both restored growth and targeted state assistance, as well as an important improvement in levels of income inequality.10

Though it did not lead to the expulsion of foreign companies in the oil and gas industry, the so-called nationalization of hydrocarbons formed part of a wider policy to reverse the liberalizing economic reforms and to reassert the role of the state in the productive sphere. Progressively, other companies that had been part privatized in the 1990s11 reverted to state control, including those in the energy and telecommunications sectors. Now on a more firm financial footing, Bolivia was able to resist the need to seek financial aid from the IMF and World Bank, also benefitting from the multilateral debt-reduction schemes conceded to Bolivia under previous governments. It also turned its back on the trade liberalization initiatives advocated by the United States, such as the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), signing up to the Venezuelan-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) instead.

These moves paralleled a foreign policy designed to promote Bolivia as a stalwart defender of state sovereignty against what its new rulers saw as United States–led globalization. Even in his capacity as president-elect, Morales had undertaken visits to various European countries, Russia, China, and South Africa to demonstrate his government’s intention to reduce dependence on Washington and to develop new bilateral partnerships. From the start, Morales had cultivated a close rapport with Cuba and Venezuela, but his intuitive anti-gringo stance was born out of the struggle to defend coca cultivation in the Chapare. His public posture, therefore, was grounded on the right of a country to pursue its own course, free from outside interference. This was a message that picked up on a proud nationalist tradition with its roots in Bolivia’s past. His critique picked up on what was widely seen as the tendency of the U.S. embassy in La Paz to meddle in the country’s domestic politics to the extent of who should (or should not) be designated for public office. This was to lead to the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in September 2008 and subsequently to that of both the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and finally (in 2013) USAID.

Facing Down the Opposition

Until the 1950s, the eastern department of Santa Cruz had been an economic backwater that had contributed little to the Bolivian economy, but it was subsequently in the 1960s that the rapid growth of agribusiness, alongside the development of hydrocarbons, led to the emergence of a prosperous but highly conservative new elite. It was in Santa Cruz that the fascist-inspired Falange Socialista Boliviana (FSB) had tried to mount a guerrilla campaign to subvert the then–revolutionary governments of the MNR in the 1950s. Later on, it was the elite of Santa Cruz that underpinned the repressive dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer (1971–1978) and was the main beneficiary of that government’s land and credit policies.12 During the 1980s, Santa Cruz and Beni departments (farther to the north) became the main support base for the development of Banzer’s party, Acción Democratica Nacionalista (ADN), around a strongly articulated regionalist discourse.

It was not surprising, then, that the emergence of Morales and the MAS encountered resistance in this part of the country. In the 2002 election, the MAS had won 10 percent of the vote in Santa Cruz and 3 percent in the Beni, rising to 33 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in 2005, concentrated among migrant communities from the highlands. The Morales government’s plans greatly to accelerate the pace of land redistribution in Santa Cruz in favor of small-scale producers created particular alarm among the department’s elite, noted for their xenophobic (indeed, racist) attitudes toward migrants from the Altiplano. But it was over the new government’s plans for the constitution and the fear that redistributive policies would come at its expense that drove the cruceño elite into what came close to outright rebellion.

The size of the electoral victory of Evo Morales in 2005 and the diminished power of conservative opposition came as a rude surprise to the cruceño elite, a result repeated in the election to the constituent assembly. The main objection of Santa Cruz to the new constitution was that it ignored demands for greater regional autonomy. The conservative opposition in the assembly managed to prolong the proceedings way beyond the date they originally were supposed to end. The assembly eventually split, with the majority MAS declaring its support for a draft but the conservative minority refusing to endorse it. At the beginning of 2008, conservative leaders of the eastern departments—led by Santa Cruz—announced they would hold separate referendums on a radical form of autonomy that amounted to quasi-secession. The large “yes” majorities achieved in these referendums effectively split the country in two.13 The violence that ensued further exacerbated tensions, with youth groups sacking government offices and even burning some down.

In the end, the conservative opposition overplayed its hand. A recall referendum, suggested by the opposition in August 2008, ended with Morales being ratified as president by a full 67 percent and two opposition prefects being voted out. International mediators called in to arbitrate made clear they would not assent to any threat of secession. The business community in Santa Cruz also made it clear that the politicians had overreacted in ways detrimental to the business climate. And then finally, suggestions that the U.S. embassy had played a role in stirring up violence enabled Morales to reassert his nationalist credentials in expelling the ambassador as persona non grata. By the time of the 2009 presidential elections, called following the approval of the new constitution, Morales managed to rally 64.2 percent of the voting population behind him, a full ten percentage points more than the “landslide” of 2005.

From that point on, the Morales administration entered into a “new deal” with the business community in Santa Cruz, a sometimes uneasy relationship but one of mutual convenience. The way had been paved by the final approval of the constitution (with some of its more radical provisions watered down or removed) in the January 2009 referendum, and with it a simultaneous vote on upward limits on landholding. However, the latter came with the proviso that the limit would not be made retroactive; this represented a huge olive branch to the landowners of the oriente. Subsequently, the discourse of the government turned away from issues like agrarian reform toward the notion of food security and the need for Bolivia to become less dependent on food imports. Policies to redistribute land in favor of peasant and indigenous communities were thus slowed down. With Santa Cruz as the main source of food for an increasingly urbanized population, policies in favor of agribusiness were a further sign of rapprochement between the government and its one-time opponents.

Toward Consolidation?

With 64 percent support, Evo Morales achieved reelection in December 2009 for a further five-year term. Among the changes introduced in the new constitution was removal of the bar against immediate reelection. His second term in office was dedicated in large measure to translating the new constitution into law and trying to implement its main provisions. These included legislation that introduced changes to the electoral law, including the creation of indigenous constituencies, a law on the new multilayer system of local autonomies (including departmental, municipal, indigenous, and regional autonomies each with its own internal statutes), a law introducing and delimiting a system of indigenous justice within specific areas of the country, and new mining and investment laws. Elections were also held for major judicial posts (including the supreme court) following the new constitutional precept that these be made on the basis of universal suffrage. However, it soon became clear that, in contrast to the first term in which the October Agenda had pre-established the main priorities, Morales’s second term lacked the same sense of innovative and reforming policy making. Dissent quickly made itself felt, as the government encountered awkward policy choices. Erstwhile allies showed that their ongoing support among social movements was not something that could be necessarily taken for granted.

The first major challenge came at the end of 2010, when the government introduced an abrupt adjustment to the domestic price of fuel in an attempt to improve the operational balance of YPFB, improve its capacity for investment, and staunch the outflow of hydrocarbons to neighboring countries through contraband. Reminiscent of former IMF-designed economic packages and labeled the “gasolinazo,” the price hike ended in major disturbances, prompted by the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the unions, and the cocaleros. Stung by the response, the government quickly rescinded the measure. The second major bout of protest arose in 2011–2012, when indigenous groups from the eastern lowlands rejected government plans to build a road through a protected indigenous area known as the TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure). Two large marches were staged from Trinidad to La Paz, bringing together dissident indigenous groups from both the highlands and the lowlands, as well as a motley group of former government supporters defending indigenous rights and the natural environment in this highly biodiverse area on the frontiers between Cochabamba and Beni. As with the gasolinazo protests, the government ended by giving way and abandoning its road project, but not without creating lasting animosity. The third major mobilization was staged by the mining cooperatives in 2014 in protest of aspects of the government’s proposed mining law. The cooperativistas represented a powerful constituency keen to advance their own economic interests, even if at the expense of the constitution. In this case, the government opted to make concessions but, ultimately, forced the cooperativistas to climb down on their principal demand.14 There were also other less serious bouts of conflict during these years that resulted in protracted disputes with specific groups of workers (such as doctors, health workers, and the police).

These conflicts brought about significant splits over policy with sectors and movements that had endorsed the October Agenda and backed Morales for president in 2005, splitting away from the government. Indeed, the TIPNIS dispute brought to an end the so-called Pacto de Unidad first created in 2004 to support the MAS. The most serious division was with the alienation of the CIDOB (Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente Boliviano) in the eastern lowlands and of Conamaq (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas de Q’ollasuyo), the body seeking to reinstate indigenous forms of organization in the highlands. Increasingly, the government appeared to be adopting policies that ran in opposition to its professed commitments to the environment and indigenous values. These centered on the strategy to promote extractive industries, in particular hydrocarbons, in the knowledge that exports, economic development, and growth all depended on them. The need to discover new gas reserves involved exploration on indigenous territories in the east. Behind the TIPNIS dispute lay the fear that this area would be opened up to hydrocarbons exploration as well as other forms of economic exploitation. At the same time, the government’s professed long-term economic objectives increasingly represented a shift away from the promotion of peasant and indigenous economic interests. By 2010, there were clear signs that the land-reform policies pursued during Morales’s first term were being wound down and that, in their place, new emphasis was being put on the need for food security. This coincided with the government seeking to bury the hatchet with the landowning elites of Santa Cruz and the Beni. Far from becoming acquiescent actors responding to clientelism from above, social movements showed themselves to be willing and able to stand up for their interests, sometimes using quite violent means to do so. But what was clear was that—unlike the period between 1999 and 2003—there was little unity of purpose between them and still less a political organization capable of uniting them ideologically and creating an alternative political project to the status quo.

One key to Morales’s ability to weather the assaults on his government was to maintain a discourse of nationalism and of standing up for Bolivia’s dignity and sovereignty with respect to other countries. In view of the past, his stance toward the United States was particularly important, concretely his ability to withstand pressure on the drugs issue. His ability to devise a policy that regulated drug cultivation in the Chapare while maintaining the appearance of not kowtowing to Washington helped maintain that image. The decision to expel USAID in 2013 came after years of allegations of U.S. meddling in Bolivia’s domestic politics. Morales’s vigorous policy in defense of the country’s longstanding objective of regaining access to the Pacific also won him credit for standing up for Bolivia’s interests. In 2013, Bolivia formally instituted proceedings at the International Court to oblige Chile to negotiate “in good faith” a salida al mar.15 In other respects, too, Bolivia conducted a vigorous foreign policy, particular within the United Nations and in the debates around climate change. In 2013, it managed—against opposition from the United States—to have the 1961 UN Narcotics Protocol changed to make legal the traditional practice of coca chewing (acullico).

Increasingly, however, a critical weakness had become apparent: the problem of continuity and succession. Evo Morales, along with Vice President Alvaro García Linera, contested the December 2014 elections under the argument that this was only their first reelection under the new 2009 constitution. Once again, they proved remarkably successful, this time winning 61 percent of the vote. Despite the signs of opposition alluded to above, the political opposition failed to make much of a dent on the hegemony of Morales and the MAS. It proved unable to unite, presenting a variety of presidential candidates that split the available vote. Moreover, it remained identified with the same sort of conservative positions that had characterized the political pacts that the MAS had superseded. They had little to offer by way of convincing alternative messages. Yet the reelection of Morales made clear that the MAS lacked an alternative candidate capable of mobilizing support across the country. Morales remained the party’s undisputed leader and the only figure seemingly able to maintain unity and resolve the sort of conflicts that the government repeatedly encountered.

While the death in 2011 of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez must have made it clear to Morales the dangers of failing to prepare for a succession in advance, the fragility of the MAS government in Bolivia remained due to its dependence on a single person and the lack of institutional mechanisms that would guarantee a smooth succession (if and when it became necessary). Having assumed office in January 2015 for a further five-year term, speculation immediately surfaced regarding whether Morales would be allowed to run again in 2019, something that would involve a further change to the constitution. A referendum, held in February 2016, on a constitutional amendment to this end resulted in a narrow “no” victory, a result that evidently took both Morales and the leaders of the MAS by surprise.16 But that may not be the end of the matter. At the time of writing, several of the social movements supporting the MAS had resolved not to take “no” for an answer and began planning a variety of strategies to override the referendum result.

Discussion of the Literature

The election of Evo Morales to the presidency in Bolivia and the experience of the MAS government since have given rise to an unprecedented expansion in scholarship on Bolivia. Morales’s early life and his emergence as a dirigente in the Chapare are well covered in Martín Sivak’s biography Jefazo: Retrato Intímo de Evo Morales, as well as in Morales’s own ghostwritten autobiography, Mi Vida: de Orinoca al Palacio Quemado. His role in the Chapare is perhaps best covered in Sven Harten’s The Rise of Evo Morales and the MAS, which also traces the evolution of the MAS as a political party from among the social movements associated with the cocaleros. Probably the most comprehensive work on social movements as a force in Bolivian politics is Alvaro García Linera’s Sociología de los movimientos sociales: estructuras de movilización, repertorios culturales y acción política. John Crabtree’s Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia offers a shorter and more schematic treatment of the mobilizations that took place in the early 2000s and how the MAS managed to link these up into a political project. A comparative view of the Bolivian cocaleros with those in neighboring Peru is to be found in Ursula Durand’s The Political Empowerment of the Cocaleros of Bolivia and Peru.

A number of titles seek to situate the ascent of Morales and the MAS into their historical tradition. Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson take the story back to the indigenous revolts of the late 18th century in Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. James Dunkerley also adopts the long view in his Evo Morales, Alvaro Garcia Linera and the Third Bolivian Revolution’ in Dunkerley: “Bolivia: Revolution and the Power of History in the Present. John Crabtree and Laurence Whitehead’s edited volume Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present too underlines some of the continuities as well as the changes in Bolivian politics. Marta Harneker and Federico Fuentes’s MAS IPSP: Instrumento político que surge de los movimientos sociales also provides a useful synopsis of the MAS’s place in the longer tradition of Bolivian politics.

The emergence of indigenous politics in Bolivia is dealt with in a comparative setting by Donna Lee Van Cott in her From Movements to Parties in Latin America: the Evolution of Ethnic Politics, in which she locates the rise of the MAS in the political reforms of the 1990s. Deborah Yashar’s book Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: the Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Post-liberal Challenge also provides a comparative view in which Bolivia takes pride of place, as does Raúl Madrid’s The Rise of Ethnic Politics in Latin America. Finally, Xavier Albó’s Movimientos y poder indigena en Bolivia, Ecuador y Perú offers another comparative view that sets the Bolivian experience against those of the two other Andean countries with large indigenous populations. Jeffery Webber’s Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia highlights the way in which indigenous and left politics came together in the Gas War of 2003 to challenge the neoliberal status quo.

The development of the MAS as a successful ruling party is dealt with in Moira Zuazo’s Cómo nació el MAS and in John Crabtree’s chapter on electoral validation in Adrian Pearce’s edited volume Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia: the First Term in Context, which evaluates the performance of the MAS in terms of its performance in successive electoral contests up until 2009. As the title suggests, this volume also provides an overall view of the 2006–2010 government, a topic also covered by Linda Farthing and Benjamin Kohl in their Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change, which takes the story further into the second term. A detailed account of the work of the constituent assembly between 2006 and 2008 is contained in Salvador Schavelzon’s El nacimiento del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia: etnografía de una Asamblea Constituyente.

The experience of the MAS in government has excited different responses depending a good deal on the ideological bent of the author. Opposition analysts decry its more authoritarian and populist tendencies, and these grew in number as Morales’s second term progressed. Fernando Mayorga takes a critical view in his Incertidumbres tácticas: ensayos sobre democracia, populismo y ciudadanía, which sees the space for civil society shrinking before an overreaching, populist state. For Marxist critics, like Jeffery Webber in From Rebellion to Reform: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation and the Politics of Evo Morales, the reforms of the Morales era have failed to alter the basic structures of power in the country and have perpetuated the neoliberal policies of his predecessors.

The limitations on “plurinationalism” are exposed by Jason Tockman and John Cameron in Indigenous Autonomy and the Contradictions of Plurinationalism. They see the maintenance of an extractivist economy and the MAS’s determination to occupy all the available political space as antagonistic to indigenous autonomy. The failings of extractivism as a development model are also underlined by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer in The New Extractivism: Post Neo-liberal Development or Imperialism of the 21st Century, which contains a chapter on Bolivia (by Veltmeyer). In a rather different vein, John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin stress some of the benefits, material and other, achieved by those involved in social movements during the first two terms of the Morales and the MAS government in their Bolivia: Processes of Change.

Further Reading

Albó, Xavier. Movimientos y poder indígena en Bolivia, Ecuador y Perú. La Paz: CIPCA, 2008.Find this resource:

Crabtree, John, and Ann Chaplin. Bolivia: Processes of Change. London: Zed Books, 2013.Find this resource:

Crabtree, John, and Laurence Whitehead, eds. Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Dunkerley, James. Bolivia: Revolution and the Power of History in the Present. London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2007.Find this resource:

Farthing, Linda, and Benjamin Kohl. Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.Find this resource:

García Linera, Alvaro, et al. Sociología de los movimientos sociales en Bolivia: estructuras de movilización, repertorios culturales y acción política. La Paz: Diakonía and Oxfam, 2004.Find this resource:

Harten, Sven. The Rise of Evo Morales and the MAS. London: Zed Books, 2011.Find this resource:

Kohl, Benjamin, and Linda Farthing. Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance. London: Zed Books, 2006.Find this resource:

Pearce, Adrian J., ed. Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia: the First Term in Context. London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2010.Find this resource:

Tsolakis, Andreas. The Reform of the Bolivian State: Domestic Politics in the Context of Globalization. Boulder, CO: FirstForum Press, 2011.Find this resource:


(1.) Morales first travelled to the Chapare in 1980 following the destruction of his family’s crops in the Niño of that year. His early years are recounted in Martín Sivak’s Jefazo: Retrato íntimo de Evo Morales (Santa Cruz: Debate, 2008).

(2.) See Sven Harten, The Rise of Evo Morales and the MAS (London: Zed, 2011).

(3.) Xavier Albó, “The Long ‘Memory’ of Ethnicity and Some Temporary Oscillations,” in Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present, eds. John Crabtree and Laurence Whitehead (Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh University Press, 2008), 31.

(4.) On the evolution of social movements during this period, see John Crabtree, Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia (London: Latin America Bureau, 2005).

(5.) The constitution specified that where a presidential candidate failed to win a plurality (50 percent) of votes, congress had the duty to select the winning candidate in a joint sesión. This sometimes led to the presidency going to a candidate who had not led in the first round.

(6.) See Moira Zuazo, Cómo nació el MAS: La ruralización de la política en Bolivia (La Paz: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2008).

(7.) Leader of the Socialist Party (PS-1) assassinated at the time of the 1980 military coup.

(8.) Leader of an indigenous rising on the Altiplano in 1899.

(9.) See Willem Assies, “Bolivia’s New Constitution and its Implications,” in Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia: the First Term in Context, ed. Adrian Pearce (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2010). Also Salvador Schavelzon, El nacimiento del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia: etnografía de una Asamblea Constituyente (La Paz: Plural, 2012).

(10.) In 2006 60 percent of Bolivians lived in poverty, with this rate falling to 45 percent in 2010 and 40 percent in 2014. Extreme poverty rates fell from 38 percent in 2006 to 20.9 percent in 2010, to 17.3 percent in 2014. The Gini coefficient for income inequality fell from 0.59 in 2006 to 0.46 in 2010.

(11.) Under a system known as “capitalization” whereby foreign investors took a majority 50-percent-plus-one share and assumed managerial control.

(12.) See José Luis Roca, “Regionalism Revisited,” in Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present. eds. John Crabtree and Laurence Whitehead (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2008).

(13.) This division gave rise to the expression of the “half moon” (media luna), implying a country split into two halves.

(14.) This involved allowing mining cooperatives to enter into production agreements with third parties from the private sector. The government argued that cooperatives operated on the basis of concessions from the state and that any such deals would require official prior approval.

(15.) In September 2015, the ICJ ruled against Chile’s claim that the case was inadmissible.

(16.) Government leaders alleged they had been robbed of victory by a malevolent plan of misinformation through social media, including charges that the president had had an illegitimate child with a woman who had subsequently become a senior official in a Chinese investment company in Bolivia.