THE PREVAILING depiction of struggle in Bolivia is an uncomplicated one. On one side are Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. On the other is a right-wing, autonomist (secessionist) bourgeoisie, often colluding with or receiving direction from U.S. imperial interests. As Jeffrey Webber writes, “the MAS is often inaccurately portrayed as the singular left protagonist in an epochal struggle for hegemony.” Absent from these accounts are the indigenous workers responsible for the explosive social movements that propelled Morales into his presidency.
After that historic election in 2005, however, ordinary Bolivians were still living in the poorest country in South America. They spent a half-decade in struggle, chasing out multinational corporations and two presidents. Morales’ immense popularity could not indefinitely prevent him from having to deal with demands from below, as well as those from the right.
How Morales and the MAS have reacted to these forces gives us different measurements by which to judge. Morales has clearly outmaneuvered much of the right: defeating their attempts to make resource-rich swathes of Bolivia autonomous; surviving a recall attempt in 2008 by 61 percent; and reelection in 2009 with an incredible 64 percent of the popular vote (with 90 percent participation). But have those defeats of the right translated into better lives for his working-class, indigenous base? Jeffrey Webber takes up this question in his new book, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia. Webber makes an important contribution to the growing literature on Bolivia, providing a case study in what can be accomplished when even the most radical-sounding candidate becomes president under capitalism.
In fact, Webber makes sixteen contributions. He lays out sixteen theses in a methodical and convincing work that “we need to pay diligent attention to the practice of MAS rather than parroting its rhetoric. The negligence of some analysts in this regard has led them to exaggerate the radical nature” of MAS, whose policies bear some striking similarities to those of previous administrations. Webber calls economic policy under Morales “reconstituted neoliberalism,” for its adherence to an economic policy of high growth, high savings, and low spending. Particularly alarming are statistics that show that, despite Bolivia’s enhanced bank account, social spending has actually decreased as a percentage of GDP.
For Webber, 2000–2005 in Bolivia represented “a revolutionary epoch in which mass mobilization from below and state crisis from above opened up opportunities for fundamental, transformative structural change.” As the MAS moved away from street-level mobilization and toward political office, however, it increasingly needed to appeal to a middle-class electorate. The election that brought Morales the presidency represented a breakdown of the traditional neoliberal parties. But MAS had also shifted its class composition, ideology, and its political strategy. These shifts resulted in government policy that “represents a significant degree of continuity with the inherited neoliberal model.”
Webber argues that policy decisions being made today in Bolivia, unlike in previous eras, are less susceptible to influence from the United States. He spends some time early in the book making the case that U.S. leverage is declining for three reasons: imperial overreach in the Middle East; declining position (from first to third) as a trading partner with Bolivia for imports and exports; and a slumping U.S. market that became less attractive.
At the same time, there were clear gains from Morales’ victory in terms of regional partners, particularly Venezuela and Cuba. Venezuela has offered air and sea transport infrastructure and guaranteed Bolivia a market for its agricultural products. Cuba has provided invaluable medical services, equipment and doctors (including ophthalmologic centers capable of treating 100,000 a year), as well as 5,000 scholarships to study medicine in Cuba.
The ingredients for far-reaching transformations seemed to be present—a radical, combative base, the discrediting of neoliberalism, a weakening of imperialist threats, and support from regional partners. Nevertheless, a series of MAS compromises with the right wing created significant obstacles, beginning with the Constituent Assembly in 2006. Since the 2000 Water War—where a mobilization of workers, peasants, and the poor prevented a corporate takeover of water resources in Cochabamba—social movements had been demanding a radical re-writing of state policy that would include their organic participation. Webber argues this was very much a possibility in 2006, with the right wing at “perhaps its weakest point politically.”
Instead of moving forward with a radical agenda, however, the MAS made space at the table for the right wing. Bringing them into the dialog foreclosed many opportunities for left participation and actually allowed the right to begin to reconstitute itself (in the form of the autonomist drive for regional secession). There were also numerous concessions in even the most celebrated steps Morales has taken, such as the hydrocarbon “nationalization,” which Webber dismisses as largely political theater with huge loopholes for corporations to exploit. He notes that “the Bolivian government has captured a significantly lower proportion of benefits in 2004 than it did in 1999” when ex-dictator Hugo Banzer was president.
But the MAS has not taken the same conciliatory approach to workers, its base. Its austere fiscal policy saw almost no change in poverty rates or social inequality, despite budget surpluses, tight inflation, and massive growth in international reserves. In fact “the share of national income taken home by workers, having dropped consistently over the 2000s, continued to do so under Morales, from 30.1 to 24.6 percent in 2006, to 24.7 percent in 2007, and to 23.7 percent in 2008.” In the face of a fiercely competitive world capitalist system, the state has played an active role in “proactive labor flexibility.” This essentially means convincing labor movements to “abandon class struggle in favor of cross-class cooperation and stability in labor relations.”
While the argument in Rebellion to Reform is convincing and thorough, two questions emerge. As Webber goes after MAS policies, it’s unclear what ideal he’s measuring against. He offers several examples of the MAS putting down mass labor eruptions, so sometimes the Morales administration clearly takes sides in labor conflict—the wrong side. Webber’s critique leaves the reader to wonder what sort of political formation might offer a genuine peasant-worker alternative, a formation that doesn’t aim to take charge of a state whose function is to defend capitalist property.
It’s also unclear from Webber’s account why the MAS continued to enjoy such enormous support. There is no account for why Morales, despite all the evidence provided, was reelected with a larger majority than any president in Bolivian history. This question is likely related to the first. MAS’s dominant position on the left makes it a credible force against the bourgeois right, while more radical projects would have to start small and might seem wildly unrealistic to many. These people, who might otherwise support a revolution from below, probably make up some of the enormous electoral support MAS has enjoyed. Answers to these questions would make the Rebellion to Reform an even stronger effort.
Overall, Webber’s book is well researched, interesting, and important. As revolutions from below sweep North Africa and the Middle East, socialists should refocus on the Pink Tide of South America with new and heightened expectations. We can and should congratulate Morales for spreading anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist arguments on a global stage. At the same time, we must put our support in Bolivia and elsewhere solidly behind, in Webber’s words, “the ongoing mass struggles from below that are attempting to push the current political and social processes in that country toward a transformative path while their participants transform themselves in the process.”