Governing with the people: Some examples from Bolivia

Federico Fuentes

[An earlier version of this article was first published on the new teleSUR English website]

When Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2005, he promised to “govern by obeying the people.” The recent approval by the Plurinational Assembly of laws dealing with mining and children’s rights are two examples of the challenges and benefits of this radical approach to governing.

Breaking with the conception that legislating should be confined to the four walls of parliament, the Bolivian government has made repeated efforts to involve broad sections of society in rewriting the rules of the country.

The first, and most important step taken in this regard was the convocation of a Constituent Assembly in which elected delegates, together with representatives of the country’s powerful social movements and other civil society groups, drew up a new constitution.

The new charter was subsequently approved by a large majority in the 2009 referendum, despite the often-violent resistance campaign waged by right-wing opposition groups.

Since then, the government has sought to convert some of the novel ideas in the constitution – such as granting rights to Mother Earth, indigenous autonomy, and the nationalization of natural resources – into enforceable laws.

Seeking to legislate both with the people and for the people, the government has paid particular attention to debating new laws with those sectors that would be most directly affected by them.

The presence of highly combative social movements steeped in the knowledge that what has previously been taken away from them in parliament can and has been won back on the streets, has made this process somewhat volatile at times.

Yet, rather than fear street mobilizations, the current Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government has come to view them as “creative tensions” within the revolutionary process underway in this small Andean nation.

Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera explains that tensions between those sectors leading the process of change are inevitable, but adds they can be “creative because they have the potential to help drive forward the course of the revolution itself.”

Mining law

After three years of intense debate Bolivia’s parliament approved a new mining law in late May.

Under neoliberalism, tumbling global mineral prices were used to justify the privatization of Bolivia’s entire mining sector.

Through this process the state mining company COMIBOL was dismembered, close to thirty thousand miners where left without a job, and the cooperative miners sector (of which today there are some 110,000, representing 85% of the mining workforce) gradual became a powerful political force

The new law seeks to bring legislation in line with the new constitution, according to which minerals are property of the Bolivian people and to be administered by the state, “in the interest of the collective”.

The new law also builds upon the series of actions taken to date by the government in the mining sector. These include the nationalization of mineral deposits and tin smelters, the renegotiation of contracts to ensure increased state control and revenues, and steps towards metal processing and industrialization.

John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin write that the government’s policies have helped resuscitate COMIBOL, the state mining company, “as a key planner in the sector, as the owner of important subsoil resources, as a partner with a number of private sector concerns, as promoter of industrialization, and as a producer in its own right”

Most importantly, the new law has been heavily shaped by debate – at times violent – between different sectors within the mining workforce and indigenous communities affected by mining operations.

While discussions may have started at meetings inside the Ministry of Mining, the more conflictive issues were generally resolved in the mines or on the streets.

In response, the government has largely sought to facilitate dialogue among and between miners and affected indigenous communities, as a necessary precondition for overcoming tension and advancing their mutual aims.

Overall, the MAS government has sought to favor nationalization and industrialization, while acknowledging that some concessions have had to be made to the powerful cooperative sector.

An example of this was the Colquiri mine dispute in May-June 2012. What began as a mine occupation by a local mining cooperative quickly took on a national dimension when the Trade Union Federation of Mineworkers of Bolivia (FSTMB) and the National Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN) took up the cause of their respective local affiliates (the former demanded the expulsion of the occupiers, who were affiliated to the latter).

In an attempt to reconcile the warring factions, the government offered to nationalize the mine as a way to secure the jobs of the existing mineworkers and offer employment to the occupiers. The government also stated it was willing to grant the cooperative access to certain mineral veins.

While trade unions representing private mineworkers initially opposed the deal, believing it could threaten the jobs of its members elsewhere, they soon came onboard.

On the other hand, the local cooperative refused the offer, and instead signed a deal with the private mine owner, Glencore, that would see them work part of the mine in return for handing over what they extracted back to the company.

With support for nationalization growing among the mineworkers, local communities and even some cooperative miners, the government finally ordered COMIBOL to take complete control over operations at Colquiri, while granting the 26 de Febrero cooperative access to the Rosario vein. In return, the cooperative had to sell what it extracted to COMIBOL and was barred from associating with transnationals.

This same issue of mining cooperatives partnering with private companies was also the spark behind violent protests that rocked the country just as the law was reaching the final stages of approval.

Under the new law, private companies can no longer register minerals as they property, and those with pre-existing contracts have to sign new ones in line with the new tax regime which will see the state collect most of the sector’s profits.

The initial draft also allowed cooperatives to freely sign contracts with the private sector

Once the government presented its draft version of the law, agreed to by all sections of the mining workforce, parliamentarians sought to remove this right from cooperatives.

MAS deputy Jaime Medrano explained that allowing this would have been “unconstitutional,” as “the state cannot turn over mineral-rich areas for companies to commercialize as private property.” While the constitution allowed for the cooperative sector to sign mixed contracts with private companies, he noted that this required approval from the state.

In response, cooperative miners organized large demonstrations that saw most of the country’s main roadways blockaded and 43 police officers taken hostage.

The ensuing public debate led to the revelation that over 40 cooperative-company joint contracts were already in existence, which according to Kirsten Francescone, once again brought into sharp relief the negative role played by mining companies in the looting of the country’s natural wealth.

Through this process, the government was able to win support, including from cooperative miners, for the now amended version of the law (which denys cooperatives the right to sign contracts with private companies without prior approval from the state).

This ensured that the final draft was in line with the constitution’s mandate of maintaining sovereignty over the country’s mineral wealth.

Child labor

Debate over the recently approved law regarding the rights of children and adolescents has gone well beyond Bolivia’s borders, with the International Labor Organization (ILO) criticizing it for legalizing child labor from the age of 10.

Despite previous legislation banning all work for those under 14, an estimated 850,000 children and adolescents currently work in Bolivia. Given the high levels of poverty, many have to work, mainly for themselves on the streets as shoe shiners or with their parents on street stalls or farms, to help their families survive.

Much of the media has ignored the fact that the new law initially proposed increasing the legal working age from 14 to 16 years of age.

It was only after sustained protests (that gained media attention and public sympathy after they were repressed by police), that a new draft was developed between parliamentarians and child worker organizations.
MAS deputy Javier Zavaleta acknowledged that it was “a very difficult debate” because these groups “strive for ideals that are sometimes difficult to achieve.”
“We met with them and they are intelligent children that understood our reasons and knew that if they could choose, they would not be working,” he added.
The final version allows children under the age of 14 to work, but only in “exceptional circumstances”.  
From the age of 10, children can work for themselves, but not be employed by another person. From 12 onwards, children who have the written permission of the parents can work for others, although they are not allowed to work certain jobs, particularly those requiring a lot of physical strength.
In an important step forward, the law states child workers must have the same rights and protections as other workers, including receiving at least the minimum wage and ensuring time is set aside for all child and adolescent workers to have their educational needs met.
In general, the new law seeks to ensure that their rights are protected, rather than criminalize or force underground those that need to work to help their families.
“We are happy with the new approval of the new law” said Edwin Roman Davalos, a representative of UNATSBO, the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers, “because they listened to us, the authorities, and the parliamentarians saw our reality.”

He added that the new law had been approved “thanks to the struggles that we have waged for some time now on the streets, and to our president, Evo Morales, who listened to us.”
In response to questions raised about the new law and its contravention of the ILO convention on child labor, Rodrigo Medrano, also from UNATSBO said: “Those are conventions that are drawn up in the UN or the ILO, but I believe that those conventions are signed without having spent much time here in Bolivia.”
“This is a law that represents a just equilibrium between reality and rights, rights and international conventions,” said Garcia Linera.
It could have been “easy to pass a law that corresponded to international conventions,” he added “but which would not have been complied with, it would not have been implemented”.
Instead, Garcia Linera explains, we chose to draft “a law that takes as its starting point what we have today and that charts out a realistic and viable path for changing the working situation of children, that goes beyond international conventions.”
Challenges and benefits

Both new laws, and the process of their approval, reveal the challenges and benefits of legislating with the people.

In both case, the practice of “governing by obeying” facilitated societal-wide discussions that helped both the government and social movements learn from each other and find common ground for advancing change.

In terms of the mining, a consensus was only possible after all those sectors directly affected by the new law had faced off against each other and revealed to the wider public what was at stake.

Throughout the process, the government was able to consistently explain its position in defense of nationalization, thereby win the necessary support to enact the new law.

At the same time, the law on children and adolescent rights showed how without direct and regular contact with the reality on the ground, even parliamentarians with the best intentions can get it wrong.

Without doubt a law banning work for those under the age of 14 (or even 16 as initially proposed) would have gained accolades from institutions such as the ILO. However, it would have done little to improve the situation of those hundreds of thousands of children already working illegally.

Instead, by listening to those most directly affected, parliament was ultimately able to pass a law that both attempted to deal with this reality while seeking to change it for the better.

Both examples also show that no matter how progressive a government maybe, only pressure and support from below can ensure it says on track. By directly involving those most affected in the process of legislating, the government can also ensure the best legislative outcome.

This has meant at times that the government has had to contend with competing social movements mobilizing against the government and each other.

For Garcia Linera, this is more a benefit than a challenge. He said, “The struggle is our nourishment, our peace, not our nightmare. Absolute tranquility scares us. The opposition thinks that the struggle will tire us out; instead, it nourishes us.”

Similarly, a Bolivian vice-minister once commented that having the people protesting on the streets makes it so much harder to govern, but that at the same time he hoped they never leave the streets.

Challenging Myths About Chapare Coca Paste Production in Evo Morales's Bolivia

Thomas Grisaffi

Bolivia’s second-most important coca growing region, the Chapare, is often cast in both local and international media as the principal hub of the local drug trade. Coca leaf farmers are described as ‘nouveau riche’ peasants who spend their ill-gotten drug gains on luxury cars, parties, and houses. And it is not just the press—ex-President Jorge Quiroga recently accused the Chapare Agricultural Federations, and by extension the Morales government, of protecting the illicit trade.

Such images and myths belie the harsh reality of drug production and trafficking. Bolivia perches on the lowest rung of the international trade, mostly fabricating low-value coca paste (the first step in manufacturing cocaine) at sites scattered throughout the country. Most drug workers (known as Pichicateros) are young men without land or much hope of decent jobs, not unionized Chapare coca growers.

Pichicateros labor in rudimentary operations to soak shredded coca leaf in solvents that extract the cocaine alkaloid. The lure of fast money and the chance to amass enough to escape grinding poverty and buy a rusty old taxi or a patch of land is usually what drives them. Some become addicted to smoking paste cigarettes (known as pitillos) and find themselves trapped working in the trade to ensure their access to drugs. Their living conditions are poor; most of their houses are made of rough-cut planks without running water, sanitation, or electricity.

They earn about $30 a day (agricultural labor pays less than half that) for work that is tedious, irregular, and harmful to their health. It is also very risky: if caught, they face eight years in prison. During a research trip to the Chapare in October 2013 I asked a 14 year-old pisa-coca (coca stomper) about his work. He described wading around in a toxic stew of coca, gasoline, and acid for several hours a day. The fumes gave him a terrible headache and his flimsy rubber boots let in acid that turned his toe nails green.

Local coca growers worry about the trade’s harmful impact on their communities, even though local consumption of illicit drugs remains very low. In an interview carried out in January 2014 one woman told me: “Pichicata, it’s just so ugly. I want my son to go to university. I worry about him being tempted by the cash and pitillos.”

While previous governments treated the six Chapare coca grower federations as criminal organizations, the Morales administration has had considerable success in enlisting them as partners in the fight against trafficking. For eight years, the federations have made concerted efforts to tackle paste production with local-level union leaders, organizing frequent commissions to check that none of their members are involved. If a functioning or even abandoned production site is discovered, the union has the power to confiscate the culprit’s land and expel him or her from the community. The federation coordinates closely with the anti-drug police, and union members frequently denounce people in charge of paste production. The guilty ‘factory’ owner faces up to 15 years in prison.

When Bolivia still adhered to the failed U.S. prohibitionist policies, pichicateros could process base paste close to the main roads and towns, safe in the knowledge that their neighbors were unlikely to report them to the authorities. U.S.-financed repression against growers effectively convinced all Chapare residents that the police were enemies. But this is no longer the case. One pichicatero lamented: “Before, the compas (coca growers) would tell you when the UMOPAR (anti-drug police) were coming. Now they just turn you in.”

This heightened pressure from within the coca-growing community has changed pichicatero behavior. They now set up production in ever more remote areas and rarely maintain an operation in one site for more than two weeks—lest people get suspicious. That the pichicateros go to such lengths to hide their activity from the coca growers provides solid evidence of the Federations’ commitment to actively reject drug trafficking.

While coca-cocaine represents a significant segment of Bolivia’s economy, paste producers are certainly not the major beneficiaries. But the country’s grinding poverty means there will always be those willing to assume the substantial risks in what is often the slim hope of building a better future.

Thomas Grisaffi is an anthropologist; he is currently working as a post-doctoral research fellow at the UCL Institute of the Americas in London.

Republished from NACLA

The Promises and Limitations of Revolutionary Change in Bolivia: A Book Review of Evo’s Bolivia

Marc Becker

Reviewed: Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and Change, by Linda C. Farthing and Benjamin H. Kohl. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).

Linda Farthing and Benjamin Kohl recount in their new book on contemporary Bolivia the story of a rural community that voted almost in its entirety for president Evo Morales but complained that subsequently nothing had changed. Yes, a community member acknowledged, they now had a road, a clinic, a school, electricity, and cell phone coverage. But visa restrictions meant that fewer tourists arrived than before Morales took office, which reduced their income from the sale of weavings. 

This story is representative of a theme of promises and limitations of revolutionary change that runs through the aptly named book Evo's Bolivia: Continuity and Change. While some scholars such as Jeffery Webber are highly critical of the shortcomings of the Morales administration and others such as Federico Fuentes ardently defend the government, Farthing and Kohl attempt to balance the gains of the Morales administration with the restrictions of making the necessary profound changes to society. They conclude that over the short term realizing the long-term objections of radicalized social movements remains difficult. Nevertheless, they argue, “the chaotic and often contradictory Morales administration” is definitely preferable to “a return to business as usual under global neoliberalism” (161).

Farthing and Kohl do not hesitate to acknowledge the achievements of the Morales administration, nor do they shy away from criticizing the failures of the government. A list of the major achievements indeed are impressive: a new constitution, a significant redistribution of land, poverty reduction, education reform, literacy campaigns, expansion of medical services, industrialization, and environmental legislation.

At the same time, government failures have led to growing critical voices on the left complaining of a concentration of power in the hands of a few leaders, corruption, and a failure to break from an extractive economy.

The issue of continuing reliance on the logic of an extractive economy carries a particular political currency in Bolivia. In his classic work Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano employs the image of the exploitation of the incredibly rich silver veins in Potosí draining the wealth out of the country. The result is the familiar resource curse, with a colony such as Bolivia with the richest natural resources in the world becoming the poorest South American country. Capitalism excels at under-developing peripheral economies.

Farthing and Kohl argue, as many others have, that it simply is not possible to break from “five hundred years of an extraction-based economy in under a decade” (159). While everyone acknowledges that profound transformations are exceedingly difficult, labor leaders such as the late activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara and Aymara leaders such as Felipe Quispe question whether the government is even attempting to engage in fundamental structural changes that would move the country away from the logic of neoliberalism. The face of the government has changed, these critics charge, but the behavior and mechanisms of managing the state has remained the same.

What a post-extractive government would look like remains a highly contentious issue. Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca has talked about how a capitalist economy is based on “living well” through material accumulation, but counterpoised to this is an Indigenous alternative of “living better” that responds to a different logic. His proposal has led to much talk in recent years of the “buen vivir” or “vivir bien,” with its linguistic counterparts “suma qamaña” in Aymara and “sumaj kausay” in Quechua.

Farthing and Kohl devote an entire chapter to the topic of buen vivir, but what this cosmological shift would look like remains unclear. Farthing and Kohl frame the issue in terms of wealth transfers and increased access to education and health. Some people talk about the buen vivir in terms not unlike standard discussions of sustainable development, and others treat it as a synonym for socialism.

Some Indigenous critics charge that both capitalism and socialism are predicated on the values of modernization that require the exhaustion of natural resources. In Bolivia, these debates most visibly came to the surface with the government proposal to build a road through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). What difference does it make, these critics charge, to have a socialist government if the end result is the same: the destruction of the planet in pursuit of economic growth.

Other than for some fringe elements and intellectuals sitting comfortably in their ivory towers, few people want to return to a primitive existence or voluntarily give up the benefits of modernity. Happiness in and of itself is not a sufficient replacement for material comforts. Slogans and vague ideas of decolonization are no replacement for the implementation of substantive policies that address these pressing issues.

How to engage in a fundamental transformation of an economy without triggering disruptions and conservative reactions that would lead to a collapse of the entire political project is a conundrum that has long plagued the left. Farthing and Kohl depict the Morales administration as a transitional stage that will lead to more profound changes. Even so, disillusionment among Morales’ social movement base with his political project continues to grow even as his personal popularity remains very high.

In Evo’s Bolivia, Farthing and Kohl engage in a probing analysis of these pressing issues that are critical to the survival of our planet. The result is a successful, thoughtful, and compelling book that is written in a fluid and accessible style. The narrative is interspersed with interviews the authors conducted across Bolivia. As a result, the book achieves an admirable balance of providing an excellent entry point for those with little background in Bolivia as well as key insights for scholars and activists with a long history in the country.


Marc Becker teaches Latin American history at Truman State University. He is the author of Pachakutik: Indigenous movements and electoral politics in Ecuador (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011) and Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador's Modern Indigenous Movements (Duke, 2008); co-editor with Kim Clark of Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007); and editor and translator with Harry Vanden of José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011).

Republished from Upside Down World