Luis Arce’s election win is a huge victory for Bolivian social movements. All eyes are now on MAS’s political project.
by Nicole Fabricant
Part 3 - The Challenges Ahead
Over the last several months, workers and Indigenous people went on strike and braved repression to ensure there would be a free and fair election. They restored democracy to the country. This victory—so inspirational to socialists and movements around world—is theirs.
To speak of the enormous challenges ahead risks raining on the victory parade. But challenges there will be. For starters, the economy is in near free fall, contracting 7.9 percent between March and September. The state deficit has expanded and unemployment has grown. Pandemic-related shutdowns of small and large businesses are partly to blame, but the economic contraction can also be traced to Áñez’s neoliberal policies. Arce, a former finance minister under Morales, argues that Áñez’s policies triggered a 5.6 percent drop in Bolivia’s economy between November 2019 and March 2020, even before the pandemic hit the region. How to rebuild the economy in a moment of global recession and low commodity prices will be an urgent question for MAS.
Arce plans to confront the economic crisis by expanding biodiesel production and industrializing Bolivia’s lithium reserves, some of the largest in the world. While these economic development strategies would deliver benefits to Bolivian workers, both raise serious environmental and social concerns. Biodiesel worsens deforestation. Lithium extraction, which requires exorbitant amounts of water in a region already experiencing drought, raises environmental concerns such as water contamination and overuse. Others within the new administration have argued that Arce should look to alternative economic development options.
Less controversially within MAS, Arce has vowed to resurrect Morales-era poverty reduction programs and social supports—cash handouts or “bonos”—with particular focus on the elderly, pregnant women, and low-income families with children. Unfortunately, Arce will not have the revenue from the commodity booms that previously fueled these social programs. Meanwhile, he’ll also face an exacerbated climactic and environmental crisis: forest fires in the Amazon are likely to worsen as Brazil continues to intensify development policies driving deforestation, and droughts and flooding will persist. Amid a global recession, Bolivia will have to try to press its historic demand for a right to climate justice and payment of international climate debts, urging the countries most responsible for the climate crisis to help nations like Bolivia deal with the consequences.
Back at home, Arce will have to find a way to quiet if not stamp out the growing right-wing in Santa Cruz, which is now bubbling up in resistance to the election results. This will be a formidable task. While many described Áñez as a home-grown form of Bolivian right-wing resistance, there is a long history of right-wing separatism in Santa Cruz dating back to the Cold War era and U.S. interventionism in the form of agribusiness expansion.
During the election, presidential candidate Luis Fernando Camacho, a 40-year old lawyer and head of the Pro–Santa Cruz Civic Committee who finished in third place, stirred the pot of racism in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Beni, and Tarija. Groups of young men on motorcycles known as “motoqueros,” resembling the neofascist Proud Boys in the United States, harassed and intimated Indigenous peoples, suppressing their voting rights. After the election, on October 21, middle- and upper-middle class Bolivians marched in the Plaza Avaroa in La Paz, protesting the vote and shouting “Arce cabrón, you’re a son of a bitch and fuck your mum for giving birth to you.” The far-right Santa Cruz Civic Committee put out a statement demanding that the electoral commission immediately suspend the official vote count. These local reactionary forces are supported by transnational right-wing groups in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States.
In taking on the Right, Arce will need to forge a new relationship with social movements. A major breaking point in this relationship came in 2011, when a controversial project to build a massive highway through the TIPNIS national park pitted Morales against Indigenous movements and other left organizations. The TIPNIS conflict and state repression of lowland Indigenous movements fed opposition to Morales and the MAS from the Left. The second effect of the TIPNIS conflict was the breaking apart of many popular-sector organizations that had previously been aligned with the government. Arce will have to carve a new path for MAS and work towards reunifying these movements.
Internally, there’s much discussion in MAS about policies that can decentralize power—avoiding the concentration of influence and attention that prevailed around Morales and, instead, training and expanding the next generation of MASistas to take on their political project. Given MAS’s roots and political commitments, there’s enormous potential for a more participatory form of democracy that decenters presidential power and expands decision-making to local bodies of government, that provides spaces where social movement activists can debate and reach agreements, if not consensus.
MAS’s landslide victory in the face of a U.S.-backed coup and a repressive, right-wing state is remarkable. It should be celebrated as a huge victory for Bolivian social movements and the international Left. All eyes are now on MAS’s political project, which is offering a radical vision of hope while tackling tough questions about how to address economic and environmental crisis. Bolivia is poised to teach us; we should watch and envision how we might bring some of their lessons home.