Álvaro García Linera: People’s Power and Bolivian Indigenism
by Luis Hernández Navarro
LHN – You have governed Bolivia for six years. Has progress towards decolonization of the state really been accomplished?
AGL – In Bolivia, the fundamental fact we have experienced has been the change in role of the people making up the demographic majority in the past and today – the indigenous peoples. Previously, because of the brutality of the [European] invasion and the burden from centuries of domination, which permeated the outlook of both the ruling classes and the subservient classes, indigenous peoples were condemned to be peasants, toilers, informal artisans, porters or waiters. Now they are ministers (both men and women), deputies, senators, directors of public companies, constitution writers, supreme court magistrates, governors, and president.
Decolonization is a process of dismantling the institutional, social, cultural, and symbolic structures that tied peoples’ daily activities to the interests, hierarchies, and narratives imposed by external powers. Colonialism means territorial domination imposed by force that over time becomes “second nature.” It becomes etched into “normal” behavior, daily routine, and the mundane perceptions of the dominated peoples. Therefore, dismantling the machinery of domination requires a lot of time. In particular, time is needed to modify domination that has come to be the common outlook, to modify the cultural habits of people.
The organizational forms of the contemporary indigenous movement – communal, agrarian, and union – with their style of assembly deliberation, traditional rotation of posts, and, in some cases, common control of means of production, are today the centers of political decision making and a good part of the economy in Bolivia.
Today, to influence the state budget or to know the government agenda, it does not at all help to rub shoulders with senior officials of the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, or U.S. and European embassies. Today the state power circuits pass through the debates and decisions of indigenous, worker and neighborhood assemblies.
The subjects of politics and the real institutions of power are now found in the indigenous, plebian arena. Today, the real power of the state is located within what were once called “conflict scenarios” such as trade unions and communities. And those previously condemned to be silent subaltern subjects are today’s policy makers.
This opening-up of the horizon of historical possibility to indigenous peoples – so they can be farmers, laborers, bricklayers, house workers, but also foreign ministers, senators, ministers or justices – is the greatest and most egalitarian social revolution in Bolivia since its founding. The displaced noble ruling classes use an arid and derogatory phrase to designate the “holocaust” of these last six years: “Indians in power.”
LHN – How should the economic model that has been implemented be characterized? Is it an expression of 21st century socialism? Is it a form of post-neoliberalism?
AGL – Basically, it is a post-neoliberal model, a post-capitalist transition. Led by the indigenous movement, it has involved regaining control of natural resources that were in foreign hands (gas, oil, some minerals, water, electricity) and putting them in state hands, while other resources such as government lands, large estates, and forests have come under community control of indigenous peoples and farmers.
Today the state is the main wealth generator in the country. That wealth is not valorized as capital; it is redistributed throughout society through bonuses, rents, direct social benefits to the population, the freezing of utility rates and basic fuel prices, and subsidies to agricultural production. We try to prioritize wealth as use value over exchange value. In this regard, the state does not behave as a collective capitalist in the state-capitalist sense, but acts as a redistributor of collective wealth among the working classes and as a facilitator of the material, technical and associative capacities of farmer, community, and urban craft production modes. We place our hope of moving beyond capitalism in this expansion of agrarian and urban communitarianism, knowing that this is a universal task, not just that of a single country.
LHN – How does the process of regional integration appear to you in Bolivia? What role do the United States and Spain play? What influence do China, Russia, and Iran have?
AGL –The Latin American continent is going through an exceptional historical cycle. Many of the governments are revolutionary and progressive. Neoliberal governments tend to appear as reactionary. And at the same time, the Latin American economy has undertaken internal initiatives that are enabling it to vigorously address the effects of the global crisis. In particular, the importance of regional markets and links with Asia has defined a new kind of continental economic architecture. We must concentrate on deepening this regional articulation through projecting, if possible, a kind of regional state composed of states and nations. Let’s act as a regional state with respect to utilization and global negotiation of the great strategic wealth we possess (oil, minerals, lithium, water, agriculture, biodiversity, light industry, a young and skilled workforce). Internally, let’s act with respect for state sovereignty and the regional national identities found on the continent. Only then can we have our own voice and force in the course of the dynamic globalization of social life.
LHN – Is Washington actively sabotaging the ongoing transformation in Bolivia?
AGL – The U.S. government has never accepted that Latin American nations define their own destiny because it has always considered us as part of its area of political influence regarding its territorial security, and as its catchment basin of natural and social wealth. It reacts to any dissent with this colonial approach by targeting the insurgent nation. The sovereignty of the people is the number one enemy of U.S. policy.
This has happened to Bolivia over these last six years. We have nothing against the U.S. government or its people. But no one – absolutely no one – should come here and tell us what to do, say or think. We cannot accept that. And when, as a government of social movements, we began to lay the material foundations of state sovereignty with the nationalization of gas, when we broke the embarrassing influence of the embassies in ministerial decisions, when we defined a policy of national unity to confront the openly separatist tendencies latent in regional oligarchies, the U.S. embassy not only financially supported the conservative forces, but organized and led them politically, brutally interfering in our internal affairs. That forced us to expel the ambassador and later that country’s drug enforcement agency (DEA).
Since then conspiracy mechanisms have become more sophisticated: they use non-governmental organizations, infiltrate indigenous groups through third parties, and try to divide the popular sectors, while projecting parallel leaderships. This was recently demonstrated by the flurry of calls from the [U.S.] embassy itself to some indigenous leaders of the Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS – Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park) march last year.
Come what may, we seek respectful diplomatic relations, but we are also on guard to repel foreign intervention, whether “high” or “low” intensity.
LHN – Some sectors on the left have argued that the conservative bloc has managed to regroup and take the offensive, while the social movement that brought the MAS to power has been absorbed by institutional politics. Is this a correct assessment?
AGL – Today’s conservative bloc, comprised of foreign-oriented oligarchies, has no alternative project for society, no project capable of articulating a general will to power. The current Bolivian political horizon is marked by a virtuous tripod – plurinationality (indigenous peoples and nations in command of the state), autonomy (territorial devolution of power), and a pluralist economy (state-articulated coexistence of various modes of production).
With the temporary defeat of the right-wing neoliberal economic and social project, what today characterizes Bolivian politics is the emergence of “creative tensions” within the national-popular bloc actually in power. After the great moments of mass ascendancy, during which a universal ideal of great transformations was launched, the social movement in some cases is now undergoing a process of corporative retreat. For a time local interests tend to prevail over national concerns, or organizations get caught up in internal struggles for control of public posts. But new, unforeseen themes on how to lead the revolutionary process also emerge. Such is the case with the issue of defending the rights of Mother Earth where tensions arise in relation to popular demands to industrialize natural resource use.
As you see, it’s a matter of contradictions among the people, of tensions that yield to collective debate on how to carry forward revolutionary changes. And that is healthy, it is democratic, and it is the fulcrum for life-giving renewal of action by social movements. Even though these contradictions could be used by imperialism and the lurking rightist forces that in a transvestite ventriloquist style project their long-term interests through some popular subjects and through discourse that is seemingly anti-globalization and environmental.
LHN – In September last year, the march of indigenous peoples in defense of TIPNIS and against building a road was repressed by the police. This was presented to the public as a loss of indigenous support for the government of Evo Morales. It was stated that the Bolivian government persisted in building the road because it had received financial support from the Brazilian oil firm OAS. Is this true?
AGL – The indigenous peoples of Bolivia, as in Guatemala, are a majority of the inhabitants. Sixty-two percent of Bolivians are indigenous peoples. The main indigenous nations are the Aymara and Quechua, with about six million people located mainly in the highlands, valleys, the Yungas zones, and also in the lowlands. Other indigenous nations are the Guarani, Moxenos, Yuracare, Tsimane, Ayoreos, and another 29 who live in the lowlands of the Amazon, Chaco, and Chiquitania regions. The total population of these low-lying nations is estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000 people.
The conflict over TIPNIS has involved some indigenous peoples of the lowlands, but the government retains support from indigenous peoples of the highlands and valleys, who make up 95 percent of Bolivia’s indigenous population. And most of the mobilized indigenous people were leaders from other regions, not actually from TIPNIS. They have systematic support of environmental NGOs, many of them funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), plus the backing of the major private television communication networks, owned by old members of the separatist oligarchy – networks that have a strong influence on the formation of middle-class public opinion. More recently, another march has arrived in La Paz, also comprised of lowland indigenous people and a larger number of TIPNIS inhabitants. They are demanding the construction of the highway through the park, arguing that it is not possible that they be sidelined without their rights to health, education, and transport, which they can today access only after days of walking.
The problem is complex. Entangled in it are issues specific to revolutionary debate, with themes such as the delicate balance between respect for Mother Earth and the urgent need to link the country together after centuries in which its regions have been isolated. It involves the discussion of the highland indigenous people’s organic relation with, and their leadership in, the plurinational state – which is different from the still ambiguous relationship the lowlands indigenous peoples have with the plurinational state.
But what is also involved is the regional strategy of the Santa Cruz oligarchy to prevent this road, which would [once in operation] deprive them of corporate control of economic activity throughout the Amazon region. The U.S. is interested in controlling the Amazon as its reservoir of water and biodiversity, and in promoting divisions between indigenous leaders in order to create conditions for expelling indigenous peoples from state power. There is also the interest of some NGOs that are accustomed to using the parks for large private businesses.
In any case, in the midst of this tangle of interests, we as a government must be able to democratically resolve internal tensions, and to uncover and neutralize counterrevolutionary interests that often dress in pseudo-revolutionary costume.
LHN – Why build this road despite the opposition of a portion of the population?
AGL – For three reasons. First, to ensure that the indigenous population of the park has access to constitutional rights and guarantees: to safe water so that children do not die from stomach infections; to schools with teachers who teach in their language, preserving their culture and enriching it with other cultures. To provide access to markets for their produce without having to navigate on rafts for a week to be able to sell their rice or to buy salt at ten times the price charged in any neighborhood convenience store.
The second reason is that the road will for the first time link the Amazon region, a third of Bolivia, with other regions of the valleys and highlands. Bolivia has kept a third of its territory isolated. That has allowed state sovereignty to be replaced by the power of landlords, foreign logging firms, or drug dealers.
And the third reason is geopolitical. The separatist tendencies of the oligarchy, who were about to split apart Bolivia in 2008, were contained because they were defeated politically during the September coup that year, and because some of its material agro-industrial base was taken over by the state.
However, the reactionary separatist tendencies still have one last economic pillar, the control of the Amazonian economy. In order to reach the rest of the country, Amazonians must rely on processing and financing by firms under the control of oligarchs based in Santa Cruz. A road that directly links the Amazon with the valleys and highlands would radically reconfigure the structure of regional economic power, breaking down the last material base of the separatists and leading to a new geo-economic axis for the state. The paradox of this is that history has placed some leftists in the position of becoming the best and most vocal advocates for the most conservative and reactionary interests in the country.
LHN – Some argue that Bolivia remains a supplier of raw materials in the international market and that the development model in practice (which some analysts have termed ‘extractive’) does not question this role. Is this true? Does it involve a phase of accumulation that is accompanied by a redistribution of income?
AGL – Neither the extractive or non-extractive approach, nor industrialism is a vaccine against injustice, exploitation, and inequality. In themselves, they are neither productive modes nor ways of managing wealth. They are technical systems for processing nature through labor. And depending on how they use these technical systems, on how they manage wealth thus produced, economic regimes may have more or less justice, with or without labor exploitation.
Translated by Felipe Stuart Cournoyer.
 Alvaro Farcia Linera is Vice-President of Multinational State of Bolivia. Interview republished from Axis of Logic under permission of the Embassy of Bolivia in Moscow.