What Does Decolonization Look Like? Ask Bolivia.

Erich Arbor on 2020-09-29

Many on the Left discuss “decolonization”, while little know what it materially will look like. Bolivia under Indigenous leadership gave us, and hopefully will continue to give us, a preview.

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma celebrates the sunrise during a winter solstice ceremony in Tiwanaku

For almost a year, the people of the Plurinational State of Bolivia have been resisting a US-backed coup. On October 20th of last year, President Evo Morales had handily won the first round of voting, but due to a minor reporting outage, his detractors cried foul. The right-wing opposition dragged out the incident, accusing Morales and his party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) of electoral fraud, culminating in his forced exile and the installation of a US-backed, unelected right-wing government. While even US imperialist think tanks have admitted that Morales more likely than not won the election by 10 points, he is still currently unable to return to his country.

Nevertheless, MAS is popular as ever. The socialist party is heavily backed by the working-class, trade unions, and Indigenous communities (averaging around 20% of the population) across Bolivia. The strength of MAS that the United States government and right-wing Bolivians fear so much is embodied by the work the Morales government carried out in the interest of the marginalized in the Andean country.

Tangentially, United States socialists are beginning to discuss what a decolonized socialist movement in their own land would look like. Throughout the discussion, however, there have been ignorant, ill-informed, and downright absurd assertions regarding what decolonization in the current United States would mean. Ranging from full deportation of white “settler” citizens, the balkanization of the US (which would only divide the working class further and make them easier prey to international finance capital), to land ownership administered by solely a vaguely-defined Indigenous minority, even the most principled of Marxists can fall prey to ultraleftist positions on the topic of Indigenous peoples. Decolonization does not, and must not, be so histrionic in its theory and practice. It must be embedded in materialist analysis for it to mean anything more than empty sloganeering. In litigating what the United States needs to move forward in building socialism, we should look to examples of ongoing processes of decolonization for clarity and inspiration. Bolivia under MAS leadership provides such historical lessons to learn from.

Political Instrument for the Peoples, not Infantilism

What is typically lost within US decolonial discourse is the simple fact that the United States and Canada are not the only settler colonial states in the Americas. Every single country within America, North, and South, can be classified as a settler-colonial state. The US Left exceptionalizing their colonial history has bred a sentiment of defeatist and vengeful Left-wing politics. Elsewhere, worlds of possibility have emerged, creating true socialist projects that centralize working-class power and decolonization. In Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and elsewhere across Latin America we have seen settler-colonies break free from capitalism and offer liberation of the working class, Indigenous and otherwise.

A miner of Pailaviri (Potosi), Bolivia. 1928.

In Bolivia, the history of capitalism and Indigenous oppression went hand in hand. As is the typical history of Latin America, Indigenous marginality was the normal practice in Bolivia, as the largely white and mestizo ruling class kept the Indigenous and working-class exploited and out of power. Foreign-owned mining companies have spent more than a century extracting the resources and wealth from Bolivia‘s tin, silver, or lithium.

“The mining proletariat, which totalled 53,000 in the war years, lived and worked in horrible conditions of exploitation. Mining areas were usually in remote and poorly connected parts of the country, and miners were completely dependent on the mining companies for housing and the purchase of food from the company shops (pulperías). The conditions in the mines were of extreme humidity, some of them flooded to the waist, and with unbearable heat. Most of the miners suffered from silicosis and their life expectancy was still lower than the country’s average which at that time was barely 50 years of age. These conditions had strengthened the ties of solidarity and militancy of the mining proletariat during the first decades of the 20th century. Mining fields were usually guarded by army barracks and the army did not hesitate to massacre workers to impose the most brutal discipline of capitalist exploitation.” — Jorge Martín

Virtually throughout the entire twentieth century, the exploitative rule of domestic and foreign capital over the largely Indigenous working class continued without interruption. Aided through Operation Condor — a series of covert actions by the United States that caused instability and terrorism across Latin America against democratically-elected Leftist and populist governments— the foreign and domestic bourgeoisie was able to further its hold on the Bolivian proletariat for decades longer than otherwise possible. A neoliberal order of imperialist extraction of national resources coupled with IMF austerity measures plagued the Bolivian people, culminating in the city of Cochabamba in 1999.

Right at the turn of the millennia, the Bolivian government had decided to pass Resolution 2029, which ensured a legal means to privatize the water resources within the city of Cochabamba. The World Bank advised President Hugo Banzer, who decades earlier had previously ruled after a 1971 military coup, to continue the process of austerity and neoliberal reforms. This resulted in the government handing over a monopoly on water resources of Cochabamba to Aguas del Tunari, a US-UK joint business consortium. The resolution passed, effectively allowing for such draconian measures such as the ability of the corporation to sue Bolivians simply for collecting rainwater off of their roofs.

The response was overwhelmingly against the denationalization efforts. Through strong coordinated organizing efforts among trade unions, all walks of life within the city rose against the effort. The city came to a halt for months, until finally in April 2000, after severe instances of brutality by police and military forces, the Banzer government had repealed Resolution 2029.

What happened in the interim of these actions in Cochabamba however remains noteworthy to the general direction of Bolivia even today. While only receiving 3.27% of the national vote in a December 1999 election, a burgeoning party with the abbreviation of MAS-IPSP, or the Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, received more than 70% of the municipal vote within Cochabamba that year.

From Cochabamba onwards, MAS and its party leader Evo Morales gained traction on a national scale, representing a powerful popular force for Indigenous rights, national sovereignty against imperialism, and of course socialism. It’s popularity ballooned in the following years. In 2005, Evo Morales was elected President by a record-setting margin. Through Bolivia’s two-round electoral system, a party or coalition had never been able to galvanize popular support around a single candidate until Evo’s first victory. MAS has won in the first round with Evo atop the ticket in every single succeeding general election.

When finally in power, MAS acted strongly in the interest of the Bolivian working class. President Morales, as a former coca farmer, trade unionist, and the country’s first Indigenous president, was deeply entrenched in a proletarian struggle within the Bolivian masses. However, much to the likely chagrin of Western academics portraying themselves as Indigenous allies, his administration’s first moves were not regarding what is typically discussed around the topic of Indigenous justice. His first order of business? Nationalizing the gas and oil reserves of Bolivia.

If we understand this only from the view of an ultraleftist, this makes no sense at all. How could the first Indigenous president of Bolivia not immediately call for the appropriation of native land from landowners? Why did Evo not ask for the deportation of the mestizo and white Santa Cruceros, sending them back to their ancestral Spain? Aren’t Indigenous people supposed to be against growth of industry? Is it not the goal of decolonization to enact idealistic adventurism and fulfill the pipe dreams of intellectuals and radical aesthete?

Alternatively, if we understand this from a scientific, thoroughly dialectical framing, the nationalization of hydrocarbon enterprises and their profits make clear sense.

Here is a nation with a society made brittle from imperialism. As in the case of every surviving or enduring victim nation of empire, all infrastructure was developed not to meet the needs of the people but of the foreign and domestic processes of resource extraction. As Michael Parenti once remarked, Bolivia has always been rich, it is the people that are poor. Thus, you cannot build a movement of decolonization while capitalist, let alone imperialist, extractive forces are still in existence. For the Morales government, the immediate contradictions that must be addressed were not the ultraleftist endeavors you hear from severely-online leftists. The immediate contradictions were imperialism, which is of course the highest stage of capitalism. To combat imperialism in the global south meaningfully, one must strive for socialism.

Ultimately, the goals of MAS are what brought it notoriety within the political landscape in the first place. The class struggle in Cochabamba was in response to imperialism that directly attacked the daily living conditions of the largely-Indigenous Bolivian working class. The party organized against foreign capital preying on public utilities and won both their demands and the hearts of the workers. While in power, they remained on that path, not diverging towards ultraleftist sloganeering or actions. Through their tenure, MAS had allocated over $1 billion USD in building over 5,000 social projects, including schools, clinics, and gymnasiums. Prior to the coup that overthrew Morales, he began an effort to increase industrialization and development of lithium battery production. No more would Bolivians be used for their cheap labor extracting resources from dangerous and precarious mining wage slavery. Workers under MAS have seen an improvement in their quality of life and a path to economic and political sovereignty unknown prior, and to ignore the effects these policies hold on decolonization is to ignore reality. Even a Minister of the Morales government has remarked on how this does not run contrary to the interests of the working class:

This isn’t something that this government invented. Bolivia has always lived off of mining, we have always lived off of extractivism. Now, what we hope to do is that this sacrifice, this fruit that mother earth is providing us with, is not in vain. And that it doesn’t just leave [the country] as raw material, but that there’s a need to industrialize, and as we industrialize we can reach the point where we can lower the level of extractivism.

The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) has also addressed such concerns for how much economic development and investment is integral to the path towards socialism and decolonization:

While the new MAS worldview may be seen as a betrayal of radical indigenous and socialist ideals, it also reflects a pragmatic response to Bolivia’s changing economic, social, and political realities. Thanks to Morales’s successful state-led economic strategies and prudent fiscal management… Bolivia’s once lackluster economy has lately experienced unprecedented prosperity… redistributed to benefit the country’s poor and indigenous majority.

Ultimately what must be understood by those seeking to address the issues of capitalism and imperialism in the 21st century must confront two truths. First, that socialism is not poverty. Second, that indigeneity is not inherently dependent on degrowth economics and excessively radical aesthetics. Through MAS’ implementation of such reforms, a collective generation of abundance for the Indigenous-majority working class is foreseeable in the plurinational state’s future.

Towards a Meaningful Decolonization

“Now I want to tell you that they can drag me from the palace. They can kill me. Mission accomplished for the re-founding of the new united Bolivia.”

Within the decade of his election, Morales was elected President of Bolivia, heralding in a new revolutionary constitution in 2009. All 36 native languages were recognized, as well as a multitude of human rights, such as the right to healthcare, potable water, education, and a clean environment. After a referendum overwhelmingly approved the new constitution, Morales wept tears of joy in a public rally celebrating its passage. Remarking on how the right-wing opposition had threatened death upon him before the vote, Morales joked, “They can kill me. Mission accomplished for the re-founding of the new united Bolivia.”

This legal document has been groundbreaking for Bolivia. Passed by a clear popular majority through a constitutional referendum, it signified a break with the neoliberal order of old Bolivia. Empowering not only the Indigenous, but guaranteeing inalienable rights for children, the elderly, the disabled, and biodiversity, the 2009 constitution was an example of constructive forms of decolonization. Sealing the power of the masses, it can be in part credited for why the ongoing coup attempt is seemingly crashing and burning, with MAS likely to win in the first round of elections outright this weekend, thus regaining power after a year of being illegally unseated.

Honorable Felix Cárdenas Aguilar, Bolivian Minister of Decolonization

Following the passage of the new constitution, Evo Morales appointed a Vice Ministry of Decolonization, with Félix Cárdenas Aguilar as Bolivia’s Minister of Decolonization. Cárdenas, in a similar manner to Evo, has spent decades working within the labor movement of Bolivia, suffering under right-wing neoliberal regimes of the 20th century in which he was jailed and tortured for his organizing. Even after his ministerial appointment, he was persecuted by fascists, in one instance nearly being burned alive. Minister Cárdenas sees his position as one that does not just fulfill a role for the people of Bolivia, but for the entire world:

So, for us, this is a kind of complication; to recognize that 500 years ago they [Europeans] arrived, taught us a way of life, a type of religion, a type of modernity that failed. And so today, after 500 years, we, the indigenous people, have the obligation to go to Europe and speak to them, to convert them, to tell them that there is another way to live, and that their crisis is bringing planet earth to a global crisis.

What sets this manner of enacting decolonial efforts apart from the online radical liberalism that monopolizes Decolonial rhetoric is twofold. In one way, it is very clear in its demands and intentions. Taking a look at the constitution alone, one will understand that these rights were attained through popular struggle, not dreamed up in a critical studies department. Miners, farmers, and trade unionists have been imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for these rights. Therefore, any intention to dilute the language of what one means through decolonization does the anti-imperialist movement a great disservice. This is evident in the social media campaign around #LandBack. Of course, sloganeering is always popular among those with an orientation around social justice, but does it benefit those it seeks to benefit? When one relies on such slogans and virtue signals alone, without a program that names the needs and wants of the Indigenous working class, it does harm through mystifying and dematerializing a movement that screams for material improvement in people’s lives.

MAS Presidential candidate Lucho Arce in Caracollo, Bolivia during a campaign rally

Secondly, the actions, motives, and plans carried out by Movimiento al Socialismo are based on a materialist analysis of the economical conditions in Bolivia. The current MAS candidate on the ballot is Luis “Lucho” Arce. Arce, having been the Minister of Economy and Public Finance within the Morales administration, has been intimately involved with the development of productive forces in Bolivia for over a decade. For him, and for MAS, the goal of decolonial sovereignty over one’s own resources and economy necessitates material demands.

For Masistas, the postmodernist ideals nefariously cloaked in decolonial and socialist vocabulary are as good as useless. This is a movement that is far more interested in radically reorienting institutions to benefit the masses, rather than being fixated on the destruction of such institutions. Any abolitionist project is bankrupt if a new world forward is not described beforehand within its program. Socialism is constructive, progressive, hopeful, and growth-oriented. It is not about shaming the children of colonizing populations and dividing the workers up through balkanization, but uniting with those of which who share the same class character across racial barriers enforced by the ruling classes. Similarly, Indigenous people are not a monolith. Many do not identify outright with the radical social politics that non-Indigenous people ascribe to them. What working-class Indigenous people want is exactly the same as what all other working people want, such as guaranteed access to healthcare, education, housing, and quality food. Sovereignty from economic oppression must require the elimination of poverty before anything else. Lucho Arce, Evo Morales, and dozens of other American leaders confronting a colonial past with a socialist future understand this. It is high time US socialists follow suit.