Decolonialising Bolivia

César Navarro, political ally of Bolivian President Evo Morales, on the struggle to drive through ch

As news broke that Hugo Chávez had failed to win a referendum on constitutional reform, Bolivian politician César Navarro shook his head and pulled a face.

The Venezuelan president had lost by 51% to 49%, the narrowest of margins and an indication of the depth of the political divisions in Venezuela.

Navarro, the leader of Evo Morales's ruling Movement for Socialism Party (MAS) in Bolivia's chamber of deputies and a firm supporter of Chávez, seemed relatively phlegmatic about the outcome.

Perhaps he didn't know that just a few days later Morales would call a referendum on whether he and the country's nine regional governors should stay in office. Or perhaps he did.

The closeness of the vote in Venezuela could come to mirror Bolivia's own struggle over constitutional reforms which have already led to unrest and bloodshed – mostly recently in Sucre, the country's constitutional capital and home of its supreme court.

Two thirds of Bolivia's population is indigenous – most of them extremely poor. Until Morales, its governments were widely seen as ruling for the benefit of the post-colonialists and others of European descent.

Enthusiasts for the direction MAS is taking argue constitutional reforms will give poorer Bolivians more of a say in the running of their country as well as enshrining the nationalisation of gas and oil resources. Opponents say too much power will transfer to the government.

Navarro says the changes are the most important part of the MAS agenda because they are “fundamentally anti-colonial” and recognise the different indigenous nations that exist within Bolivia's boundaries.

“This doesn't mean the division of the country, it means recognising the indigenous nations in the interior of Bolivia have the right to self-govern without negating the national government, without having a separate constitution,” he says.

“We are talking about broadening rights which means taking away privileges from some sections of society.”

But, of course, the richer segments of Bolivian society have a great capacity to organise – through the privately owned media, through the regional prefectures and in some towns and cities.

“The confrontation is therefore not just going to be at a level of parliamentary and political debate – it's going to be among the social classes, with the indigenous nations and between regions,” he says.

“Bolivia is a long way from a civil war – there won't be a civil war. But you don't discount in some moments there could be a level of confrontation between some social groups and that will be a critical moment for the government.”

Navarro represents Potosí – which bankrolled much of the Spanish empire with its mountain of silver and around which grew what is said to be the highest city in the world.

It's a bleak place, as I found out when I visited in 2004, and there are signs of terrible poverty. Late at night on a Sunday we saw several women fetching their incapably drunk husbands home from bars. Life expectancy among the miners is desperately low – typically they die at around 40.

“Mining in Bolivia operates today much as it did in colonial times,” says Navarro. “There's no reinvestment. Today we can see a lot of mining activity in Potosi – lead, silver and zinc – and they keep on exploiting raw materials but still it remains poor.

“There's a few rich people but the wealth is concentrated in other parts of the country or abroad.”

Navarro says the MAS goal is to create a situation where the local economies don't just depend on one product and its current market value.

“This is a long term vision and if we don't start now a decade down the line we are going to regret it – and we won't be able to blame the capitalists and colonialists, because it will be our fault.”

Of course Morales also runs risks from another direction – the impatience of his own supporters.

“In Bolivia there is much expectation for change but Bolivia, as a state, has great economic limitations.

“For example, we've got a programme for social housing which has generated a lot of expectation at a national level but has the capacity this year to reach just 5% of the population. Expectation mustn't exceed reality!”

So where will the Morales revolution be in 10 year's time?

“All revolutionary processes either impose themselves or they are brought down,” says Navarro.

“You can go for the Nelson Mandela route and have symbolic power leaving the economic muscle where it always was - in the hands of the rich.

“In Bolivia we are trying to create constitutional and judicial power to implement our policies.

“Our success will depend not just on internal factors but also on our neighbours in South America and other countries in the world. So, for example, if a right wing government was to come to power in Brazil they maybe wouldn't want to buy petrol from Bolivia and that would hit our economy.

“There should be collaboration without subordination and that's the message we want to leave – respect for the self-determination of each country.”

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times