What Bolivia Is Teaching Us


By Bro. Anthony Zuba

I have been fumbling for words in the wake of Bolivia’s chaos. But it is important at this time to tell inconvenient truths so that justice may prevail. None of this—the violent clashes, the destruction of public and private property, the injuries and deaths, the vacuum of power—had to happen. And it goes back to President Evo Morales, who, I believe, put his own interests above the country and betrayed the socialist values he nobly and ably espoused.

To recap: Morales, the longest tenured of all incumbent leaders in Latin America, ran for a fourth term despite being constitutionally prohibited from doing so. He claimed victory after the October 20, 2019 election amid suspicions of a fraudulent vote count that he authorized to prevent a runoff. His declaration of victory sparked nationwide strikes and massive protests, descending after the first couple of weeks into fighting in the streets between anti-government demonstrators and Morales supporters. As the violence escalated, some units of the police and military abandoned Morales and sided with the anti-government demonstrators. On November 10, Morales announced his resignation, “after listening to my friends at Conalcam [Morales’s political machine], and the Bolivian Workers’ Center, [and] also listening to the Catholic Church.”

Morales is the first indigenous person to become Bolivia’s head of state. An Aymara and organizer of coca leaf growers, he rose to prominence in the early 2000s in the Cochabamba Water War, a populist struggle against the privatization of water resources. As leader of Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) party he built a formidable political force that assumed control of Congress and propelled him to the presidency in 2005. He presided over an unprecedented surge in economic growth fueled by an agrarian boom and natural gas exports. His administration made liberal use of subsidies to reduce disparities of income, education, and health care access between rural communities of indigenous and migrant workers and the more upwardly mobile criollos, peoples of European descent, living in the cities. Morales championed the dignity of women and of the nearly 40 indigenous tribes of Bolivia and incorporated them into the political life of the nation more fully than any leader before him.

But there was a shadow side to the Morales administration that showed in economic policy and environmental stewardship (or lack of it). Water resources remain scarce and inaccessible to the poor who are migrating from the campos into the cities, where growth is sprawling out of control. As Bolivia’s lakes dry up, leaving entire indigenous communities with no means of livelihood, water sources continue to be diverted to industrialists and urban developers. Morales has allowed and even encouraged the burning of rainforests by rural workers and agrarian interests in the eastern llanos of Bolivia no less than Jair Bolsonaro, his far-right counterpart in Brazil. And the marvelous salt flats of Uyuni, the largest on earth, lie vulnerable to depredation as the government seeks to get at the lithium deposits that lie underneath, the lithium we crave for our batteries and electronics. While Morales has kept private investors’ hands off those deposits, he has not reckoned with the consequences of accelerating the extraction of these resources, whether at the hands of the state or foreign interests.

And despite strides made for the rights of women and indigenous people, great inequalities of wealth and social capital remain. Violence against women is endemic; Bolivia ranks fourth in femicides (murder of women) in South America. More children are growing up in abusive homes or on the streets, abandoned by parents seeking work in other cities. The government permits intolerable abuses of the civil and human rights of its prisoners, incarcerated for lengthy sentences in deplorable facilities, while it has turned a blind eye to drug traffickers.

But it is Morales’s political machinations that have precipitated the present crisis. Immunized against criticism by his popularity among long-disenfranchised groups, he wielded patronage both to reward and to punish. He filled the judiciary with loyalists who aggressively targeted political opponents holding elected office, bringing about their imprisonment or exile. And he sought a way out of the two-term limit imposed on the presidency by the Constitution ratified in 2009. He called on citizens to abolish the presidential term limit in a 2016 referendum. When the results came in, the voters had rejected his proposal. Rather than abide by the decision, Morales appealed to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that, according to international convention, term limits violated human rights. The path was clear for him to stand again for office; the stage was set for the tumult of the last few weeks.

Sadly, I cannot say this was unforeseen. A year ago, as I was preparing to study Spanish in Bolivia, a fellow Capuchin friar with experience living in other nations asked me when I would be staying in the country. He was relieved when I said I would be returning to the United States in mid-August. Good, he said, explaining that the national elections would take place in October, and it was likely the country would be thrown into turmoil after that. He was right.

Citizens have been enduring weeks of tension and boredom as all ordinary business shut down. Barricades everywhere; schools closed; shops boarded up. Cherry bombs and fireworks going off all the time. Hundreds of anti-MAS motorcyclists patrolling loudly in the streets. A Franciscan colleague tells me that some rowdies nearly set fire to a Franciscan sisters’ high school in a poor section of Cochabamba. The sisters and students’ parents made a living cordon around the school until the police could arrive to protect them. As of this writing (Nov. 13), blockades are now being lifted in the cities, and businesses that were closed for fear of rioting are reopening. But my missionary friends are worried about insurgent bands of coca leaf growers. Their unions are fiercely loyal to Morales who rose from their ranks to power and in turn lifted them to undreamed-of levels of dignity, prosperity, power, and influence. They accuse the Organization of American States, the auditor of the elections, of abetting a coup d’etat. They intend to occupy the cities in resistance to the new government being organized by interim president Jeanine Añez, the Senate vice president who declared herself successor by constitutional right. Each side, pro-Morales and anti-MAS, is accusing the other of dictatorship. (DSA has issued a statement calling what happened in Bolivia a coup.)

What is the Catholic Church saying at this hour? At his Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on November 10, Pope Francis asked for prayers and invited all Bolivians, “in particular political and social players, to await with a constructive spirit, and without any previous condition, in a climate of peace and serenity” the outcome of a review of the disputed election. Hours later, Morales resigned.

The Bolivian Catholic Bishops’ Conference called for new elections, urged citizens to cease all violence, and asked elected officials to work for a peaceful and constitutional solution. The bishops asserted that the demonstrations leading to Morales’ resignations were not a coup d’état. The bishops also called on the police and military to defend the life, liberty, and property of all people. “In the name of God, we say: stop actions of violence and preserve life and peace. Let us maintain the peaceful spirit that has reigned in the country at this time.”

Maryknoll, the Catholic missionary society that runs the language program I completed in Cochabamba, issued the following statement: “Given the conflictive situation we are living in Bolivia, Centro Misionero Maryknoll en América Latina joins the churches and other institutions in efforts to recover peace and coexistence in our land. For this we need to listen, show respect, and not abandon the search for truth and justice.”

In the midst of a complicated and still unresolved political situation, it is important to make some distinctions here. As demonstrators have said with a roar, Bolivia is not Cuba. Bolivia is not Venezuela. I believe that the strikes and demonstrations are proof that the people want democracy and have the power to preserve it. At the same time, it must also be said that Bolivia is not Brazil. Bolivia is not Colombia. These demonstrations are not proof that the people reject socialism as such. Even some of the indigenous constituents who benefited most from the government’s economic policies believed that Morales had overstayed his welcome and was preventing new voices from being heard. Therefore, to suggest that Bolivians’ rejection of Morales makes them puppets of U.S. imperialists is an insult to their intelligence and sense of dignity. Do we value so cheaply their courage as to dismiss the risks they are taking to keep their government, and the wealth of their nation, in their own hands? (I am not qualified to judge whether the U.S. government and the OAS actually tried to pull some strings in this election, as some suggest. That is a different matter. Obviously, we in the United States should stand back and let Bolivians resolve their crisis themselves.)

Bolivia stands badly divided. Morales’ grip on power drove an unnecessary wedge between democracy and socialism, as absolute power has done many times before in other nations. Ah, when will we have a truly democratic socialism in Latin America, or anywhere for that matter? For a socialism to be truly democratic, socialists will have to trust in democracy. Morales, his ministers, and his political coalition could have developed a new generation of leaders. Instead of preventing rivals from arising within MAS, Morales could have ensured his legacy by grooming successors from among his base of trade unionists, farmers, and indigenous organizations.

This moment calls for humility. Today, Bolivia reminds us that we must work without guile for the aggregation of people power without allowing that power to be unduly appropriated by any one person or political force. The power of the state, only one of the means we have for achieving a just society, is a public trust to be exercised with faithful stewardship. Political power is not a possession of the executive. It is a loan from the people and a responsibility to be honored.

Today, the people of Bolivia are teaching us, with their blood, that no one person is above the movement. No one person is the movement. Psalm 146 tells us, “Put no trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no help. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing.”

Democratic socialism is not and never has been served well by our proclivity for political messianism, as I have written before. Not only does it give aid and comfort to the agents of plutocratic oligarchy; it also tempts us to exercise power like the very autocrats we despise. Bolivia is teaching us what happens when populism degenerates into idolatry.

Bro. Anthony Zuba is a Capuchin Franciscan friar in ministry at Church of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic parish in New York City. Earlier this year he studied Spanish through a language and cultural immersion program in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

(Image: The salt flats of Uyuni. Photo by Luca Galuzzi, via Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license.)