Bolivia has long been known as one of South America’s poorest countries due to the history of systematized inequality, racism, and poverty. A variety of indigenous groups have been suffering since the 15th century. Some of these groups include the highland Quechua and Aymara populations and the lowland Guarani. For centuries, Bolivia has only been recognized for its raw materials and indigenous people have been exploited as laborers of these resources. The Morales administration (2006-2019) has shifted this perspective and created a new identity as a postcolonial, multi-ethnic society, moving forward from one of the most underdeveloped nations in South America. Some of his most significant achievements were designing a national health policy, passing environmental laws, and creating a new constitution.However, many people remain unsatisfied. Despite the long rule of Evo Morales, why do indigenous people in Bolivia feel that their rights have not improved?
Evo Morales and the MAS
Indigenous people have been excluded from the political process in Bolivia for centuries. Evo Morales’s election in 2005 was a monumental shift in a system that has systematically benefited colonizers and hurt natives. During the 1990s, Morales helped found a national political party: the leftist El Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), or Movement Toward Socialism. The MAS emerged in the political scene and claimed to represent the poor and indigenous majority of Bolivians’ interests. The MAS government achieved its position through indigenous social movements. Their platform aimed to address racism, colonialism, human rights reforms, cultural identity, and indigeneity. The idea that the MAS is an ethnically based political party is debated. Still, it is agreed that the party’s platform was meant to gain indigenous voters through ethnic appeals and by drawing on indigenous symbols, history, and embracing land reform.Canessa comments on how the election of 2005 changed the identity of many people. This change has consequences for how power is exercised at the political level, but also at the micro-level; it also has consequences for the people’s sense of who they are as Bolivians and as indigenous people. Evo Morales built his rise to power within the MAS party on this momentum, by adopting the language of indigenous rights and referring to Bolivia as an “indigenous nation.”
When he came to power, Evo Morales was committed to changing the neo-liberal economic policies to a more socialist form of government. One of the most monumental changes that came under his rule was the Constitution of 2009. It incorporates a variety of indigenous symbols and cultural rights, while also recognizing 32 indigenous nations. To take this a step further, a new national Constitution was put in place to reach indigenous demands to address the long history of marginalization. This new Constitution’s preamble called for a “refounding” of Bolivia under the premises of respect and equality. However, the 2009 Constitution did not radically reform the postcolonial order as much as many people had hoped.This new model is not a failure, although imperfections are present. For example, Miguel Centellas would say, despite indigenous autonomy originating as a grassroots demand, the application of indigenous autonomy is still primarily understood as structured and applied “from above” in ways that privilege the central state. Furthermore, the document was not drafted by a plenipotentiary or original Constituent Assembly, but behind closed doors with a handful of government officials and opposition leaders.Another one of the MAS’s projects was designing a new National Health Policy in 2008 called The Family Community Intercultural Health Policy (Salud Familiar Comunitaria Intercultural, SAFCI). This policy aimed to address significant health inequities through primary care in a country that is over 60% indigenous. The health care reform process started taking place in 2006 but did not gain momentum until 2008. Bernstein comments that Bolivia’s health care reform and the SAFCI policy emerged as part of a broader movement of social and political change, as a reaction against the nation’s colonial past, and as a neoliberal political movement that had begun in 1985. There is a desire to “vivir bien” (live decently). This notion means recognizing the importance of the nation’s history, culture, dress and language.Another meaningful change was the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” (Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra), also known as Law 071. This law gives humans the same rights as nature by stating that the earth is a collective property, and it is in everybody’s interest to protect it. The indigenous people and the MAS helped pass this law, and it is the most radical environmental bill to date in Bolivia. This law draws on indigenous identity and the belief that nature is our sacred home. Buxton states that the indigenous believe in the Pachamama (Mother Earth) on which we intimately depend. As the law says, “Mother Earth is a living dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny. The protection of the earth is vital for indigenous people as it is a significant part of their identity and is now protected by law.” In other words, this law institutionally protects indigenous culture.
Before and shortly after the election of 2005, the indigenous attitudes toward Morales were extremely high. This support remained high through Morales’s second term but started to decline in 2017. A study conducted by Boulding et al. claims that in 2017, there was no difference in system support between indigenous and non-indigenous Bolivians, and the boost in generalized support for the system that the election of an indigenous president provided had faded. Many believe this is because the initial excitement of gaining representation had disappeared. It would then be essential to look at ethnicity because ethnicity can be a necessary and useful tool for mobilizing political support, and a vital factor for shaping attitudes toward government and support for the political system. This recognition is especially true in countries where ethnicity is politically essential, where political parties campaign along ethnic lines, and where longstanding political divisions have an ethnic dimension. This notion can explain why, shortly after the elections of 2005 and 2009, indigenous people were more supportive of the new political system than the non-indigenous one. However, this support did not last indefinitely.The referendum of 2016 demonstrates this disconnect. In recent years, corruption scandals on a high and low government level, and accusations of authoritarianism, have tainted Morales’s reputation. Another factor is the political and economic transformations: they opened institutional channels for the indigenous population’s participation and also brought with them the incentives necessary for these communities to want to be better informed of their rights. Morales’s attempt to run for another four years startled many, including his supporters. A variety of people felt that letting Morales run again was a borderline coup and undemocratic. Then in 2019, similar sentiments arose in many other locations, including the USA who claimed voter fraud. Whether the election was fraudulent or not is an entirely different debate, but the fact that the West, more specifically, the United States, claimed voter fraud speaks volumes.
In conclusion, the indigenous people of Bolivia have gained representation over the years in various ways. The election of Evo Morales in 2005 was groundbreaking and provided hope for many people. It represented a shift in the status quo and provided one of the most marginalized groups of people more visibility. Morales was able to gain support due to his socialist and anti-colonial rhetoric. He was also able to mobilize various social groups, which made him popular for many years. The MAS allowed marginalized people to feel represented and it gave hope to many. However, as the initial excitement wore off, people were less pleased with Morales. This sentiment came mainly because many of his policies were inclusive in theory, while in practice, they did not change much. The colonial structure does not change overnight, and neither do people’s mentalities. The referendum of 2016 was an enormous turning point for Morales as his request to run for another term was denied. This tainted his image and people grew wary.His image was harmed even further by the 2019 election and rumors of corruption. Despite this, it is vital to acknowledge the change Morales has made and the symbolic importance of an indigenous president. While there is still work to be done, Morales moved the nation in the right direction. The 2020 election has created another shift, and only time will tell the outcome. With all this said, another question arises: will Morales’s legacy live on or will Bolivia return to a colonial system?
Monica Carroll is a Political Science student at Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus and a former research assistant for the Observatory on Contemporary Crises (OCC)
To quote this article, please use the following reference: Monica Carroll (2021). “Will Bolivia return to a colonial system? ”. https://crisesobservatory.es/will-bolivia-return-to-a-colonial-system/
The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein.