Why are there no Indigenous presidential candidates in Bolivia?

Indigenous march for the Constituent Assembly, Bolivia, 2006, photo by Devin Beaulieu.

Devin Beaulieu

Fifteen years after initiating state-led “decolonization in Bolivia, the struggle for Indigenous self-determination has been subordinated to the interests of political parties. Indigenous organizations are now attempting to achieve direct representation

Devin Beaulieu

In 2005, Bolivia appeared to overcome a historical landmark, electing a self-identified Indigenous person, Evo Morales, president of the majority Indigenous country, which had been dominated for centuries by politicians from the minority white elite. Now, 15 years later, not one of the major parties competing in upcoming elections October 18 is fielding an Indigenous presidential candidate, including Evo Morales’ own political party. What happened?

Evo Morales’ initial election accompanied a wave of Indigenous representation in Bolivian politics through the party “Movement towards Socialism” (MAS). A new Plurinational Constutition was written, a law for the Rights of Mother Earth passed, and Evo Morales became an international celebrity and global symbol of empowerment for Indigenous Peoples around the world.

Evo Morales’ fall from power in November 2019 came as a shock, replaced by the obscure white politician Jeanine Añez as interim president after protests and revelations of fraud in his October reelection for a fourth unconstitutional term. Morales and his supporters claim he was the victim of a “military coup." Clashes between Morales’ supporters and the military following his resignation ended in the killings of at least 19 in El Alto and Cochabamba.

The dramatic events of 2019 would understandably lead many observers to believe that Evo Morales’ fall is behind the disempowerment of Indigenous Peoples in Bolivia. But in truth, Bolivia’s Indigenous Peoples were alienated from power long before, during Evo Morales’ presidency. The representation of Indigenous Peoples was subordinated to the interests of political parties. Indigenous organizations today are struggling to overcome political subordination.

From Indigenous Empowerment to Political Peonage

In 2006, Evo Morales promised during his presidential inauguration to “rule by obeying” the social movements that brought him to power. However, when Morales was given hard choices between upholding Indigenous rights and expanding the economy through primary resource extractivism (natural gas, mining, and agro-business), he chose to sacrifice Indigenous territory in a Faustian bargain.

In 2011, Morales broke with the Indigenous movement and ordered the brutal police repression of the pan-national Indigenous march demanding Prior Consultation for the Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS). Political persecution for Indigenous leaders followed, while the police invaded Indigenous organizations in 2012 and 2013 to install puppet leaders willing to rubber stamp state-led development projects. Indigenous organizations were divided and subordinated, described by Brazilian anthropologist Renata Albuquerque as state-sanctioned “permitted Indians."

According to the Aymara sociologist Jesus Humerez Oscori, Evo Morales’ government further underwent a process of “yuppification” (jailonización). Cloaked behind the image of an Indigenous president, white professionals rose up through the party and state bureaucracy to commanding positions of power, subordinating Indigenous members. A process that was especially visible with young women from well-connected families, such as the 31-year-old star senator for the MAS party, Adriana Salvatierra, whose father is an ex-minister under investigation for state embezzlement.

The imposture “yuppification” of government also accompanied increasing authoritarianism. In subsequent years, the authoritarian slide of the MAS party came to be overtly Orwellian. The label “free thinker” became a slur to defame party members that dissented from the official top-down party-line. In 2011, Morales passed a vague Terrorism Law with the intention of persecuting his opponents that is now being used against him by the interim government.

Nothing encapsulates the top-down structure of MAS more than the selection of Luis Arce as the party’s 2020 presidential candidate. David Choquehuanca, Indigenous Aymara and ex-foreign minister, was initially elected the presidential candidate by the MAS party congress of peasant unions and social movements. However, from exile in Buenos Aires, Argentine, Evo Morales and his inner circle overruled the decision and imposed Luis Arce, a white professional and ex-minister of economy, to lead the ticket. Choquehuanca was demoted to vice-presidential candidate.

Luis Arce is a technocrat with a long career as an economist going back to the Bolivian Central Bank during the structural adjustments of the 1980s. His campaign promises to bring back “economic stability” of the previous decade, which was based on booming primary commodity prices, now evaporated. Co-founder of the MAS party turned dissident, Roman Loayza, described Arce as a neoliberal bureaucrat.

Choquehuanca, an advocate of Indigenous cosmovision, contrasts sharply with Arce on the campaign trail. While Arce exhorts confrontation with the “coup mongers,"  Choquehuanca calls for dialogue and reconciliation. Choquehuanca openly engages in political self-criticism, such as stating that the insistence on Morales’ reelection against the results of the 2016 constitutional referendum was a mistake, and even inferring that Morales should face investigation for accusations of statutory rape.

New Political Alliances

Resistance to the subordination of Indigenous Peoples to the MAS party and Evo Morales’ government led to the creation of new opposition alliances towards the defense of Indigenous self-determination and territory, from organizing with radical feminists to rightwing politicians. In contrast to when Morales first entered office, the MAS party no longer holds an effective monopoly over representation of Indigenous candidates.

The political alliance of centrist presidential candidate Carlos Mesa has cultivated support from Indigenous activists disillusioned with the destructive environmental policies of Evo Morales. The platform of Mesa’s “Citizen Community” (CC) party promises to diversify the country’s economy and transition away from dependency on resource extractivism. However, Mesa has also stated his support for the “Santa Cruz model” of development based on industrial agriculture and blamed for destructive forest fires in Amazon.

The senatorial campaign of Indigenous activist Cecilia Moyoviri with the CC party shows the apparent irony inherent to the recent political realignment of Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Moyoviri, a Mojeño woman, is seeking to represent the Amazonian department of Beni with a political movement born from the non-indigenous middle class opposition to Evo Morales, while her “leftist” opponent from the MAS party, Suka Nacif Barboza, is from a elite cattle-ranching family with ties to narco-trafficking.

On party tickets from the ideological Right to Left, Indigenous faces are present, but in the second tier as vice-presidential candidates. The faces of all the leading presidential candidates are from the white professional and business sectors. Shifting ideological alliances have not freed Indigenous Peoples from elite machinations.

No political party has demonstrated undisputed majoritarian support from voters in pre-election polling. Recent surveys indicate deep popular distrust of politicians of every color in post-Evo Bolivia. The legendary Aymara activist Felipe Quispe perhaps best summarizes widespread political apathy with his blunt statement that a worthy presidential candidate “needs to be a savage”, a “savage [vote] for the savage”. Polling consistently shows around 20-25 percent of voter preferences as null, void, or undecided.

Movement for Direct Indigenous Representation

Following disillusionment with political parties among Indigenous Peoples in Bolivia a movement has emerged to abandon them altogether as the middle-men of democratic representation. Many Indigenous Peoples are now seeking to achieve direct representation for their communities in government.

“We are no longer going to accept any invitation from any political party, because we are not going to continue accepting positions of the fourth or fifth place," declared Marisol Solano, a Guaraní leader, during a recent event organized by the pro-Indigenous NGO CIPCA. She stated that direct representation for Indigenous Peoples in the legislature is “a dream for us”.

For the first time in Bolivian history, Indigenous organizations will compete directly with their own candidates in upcoming national elections. Six Indigenous organizations, with representatives from nine Indigenous nations, will compete for seven special Indigenous electoral districts in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. In the previous decade, the MAS party monopolized the special electoral districts and blocked Indigenous organizations from directly presenting representatives for congress.

Achieving direct Indigenous representation is far from a certainty. Indigenous organizations still have to compete, with far fewer resources, in open elections against political parties for the designated Indigenous seats. Significant limitations remain. According to the political scientist Edgar F. Izurieta, the cultural practices of Indigenous “communitarian democracy” do not easily translate into the liberal traditions of representative democracy. It is clear that 11 years after passage of the Plurinational Constitution, the Plurinational State is still under construction.

Indigenous politics in Bolivia suffered greatly under the cult of personality surrounding Evo Morales as the country’s first “Indigenous President." According to Indianist theorist Carlos Macusaya, the “political instrumentalization” of racism contributed to the folklorization of Indigenous Peoples rather than empowerment. It is troubling that Morales’ symbolic Indigenous politics have become a model for other leftwing governments in Latin America, such as López Obrador in Mexico.

The recent experience of Bolivia is further demonstration that Indigenous self-determination is not accomplished through political celebrity, but rather through the dedicated work of community organizing. Respect for political pluralism is a necessary prerequisite for cultivating respect for Indigenous self-determination, including the diversity of Indigenous visions of the good life. Hopefully, in the near future, the central focus of Indigenous representation can shift away from a question of political theater and towards demanding the full and equal application of rights.

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Devin Beaulieu is an anthropologist living in Bolivia who has worked for years with Indigenous people in the Bolivian Amazon. His work focuses on enactment of the new constitution defining Bolivia as a plurinational state to the benefit of an Indigenous majority. His research focuses on questions of liberalism, political economy, decolonization, and territorial rights.

Twitter: @db_beaulieu

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