CIVICUS speaks to Marco Antonio Gandarillas, Director of the Centre of Information and Documentation Bolivia (CEDIB), a human rights organisation founded in 1970 with the aim of providing information and consulting services with a critical eye on the social reality of Bolivia and Latin America. He speaks on the protests gripping the country in recent years, the response of state security forces and the dire situation of environmental activists.
1. Since the beginning of 2017, there have been protests over water, mobilisations for and against the president’s re-election, violent protests against the coca Bill, and countless local protests. Are we seeing a peak in social mobilisation in Bolivia?
Conflict is a part of this country’s political culture: as sociologist Fernando Calderón would put it, politics in Bolivia is “done in the streets”. We have government agencies and civil society organisations dedicated to counting social conflicts in Bolivia, because this is a country that is in permanent conflict.
The current situation must be apprehended in historical perspective. When President Evo Morales attained power in 2006, it was initially a rather convulsive stage. Certain actors, notably centres of regional power, disputed power spaces with the state. Starting with the constitutional process in 2006-2008, disputes between regional power groups and the central state subsided, and some stability ensued. There were some violent incidents here and there, but generally speaking it was a phase of low levels of conflict that lasted several years.
Around 2011 the situation changed again, with sustained increases in conflict, particularly fuelled by socio-economic factors. The turning point was the mobilisation of the indigenous peoples of TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure), a highly biodiverse protected area. The people of TIPNIS mobilised to reject the construction of a highway that would cut through their territory. The conflict was particularly relevant because this was a sector that had been an ally of the government, and that by mobilising independently raised a national conflict with the state. They received numerous expressions of public support and this became one of the main topics of public debate.
It should be noted that this process of de-alignment was important at the level of social leadership, but not so much at the grassroots level of indigenous organisations. Indigenous peoples actually live very far removed from conventional partisan politics and were not necessarily aligned with the government to begin with. In fact, many indigenous peoples – we are talking about more than thirty groups in the highlands, and about as many in the lowlands - never saw President Evo Morales as one of their own. President Morales represents the sector of the cocaleros, colonisers from the highlands who occupied the lowlands to grow coca in territories originally belonging to smaller and more vulnerable indigenous peoples. So there is actually not a single standpoint attributable to “the indigenous peoples”. Politically, indigenous organisations were a circumstantial ally of a government that at first advocated certain rights, promoted legal progress and proposed dialogue and social pacts. But the government also supported the expansion of agribusiness in the lowland territories of indigenous peoples, even allowing illegal activities such as coca cultivation for cocaine production.
In short, since 2011, and more intensely on the eve of the latest presidential election (the third) that President Morales won in late 2014, we have had a number of conficts that is even higher than the number of conflicts that took place in 2003, a time of social upheaval leading to the fall and flight of then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Although larger in number, however, the nature of conflicts has also changed. At present, there is a great proliferation of disaggregated conflicts, many of which are accompanied by high levels of violence.
2. How has the state reacted to the protests?
It has become commonplace for conflicts to be contained by heavy police intervention, often resulting in fatalities. The security forces, and particularly the police, enjoy total impunity: no cases of deaths caused by repression have been truly probed, and perpetrators have never even been prosecuted.
For instance, last year the conflict involving mining cooperatives resulted in seven deaths, six on the side of the miners plus a high authority – the deputy Interior Minister – who was lynched. There are detainees, but there is no evidence of legal proceedings complying with due process guarantees having been initiated against the material and intellectual authors of these crimes. Five of those people were killed by police-issued weapons, but perpetrators have not been identified.
This increase in conflict levels is the result of growing social unrest, which has surprisingly not expressed itself at the polls. From President Morales’ 2014 solid victory – he was re-elected with about 60% of the vote – the government deduced that society supported their economic model, regardless of the fact that according to the available data, the main reason for most conflicts was socio-economic in nature, revolving around wages, land, natural resources, public services and the allocation of public funds.
Therefore, as he was inaugurated for the third time, President Morales embraced the deepening of the government’s model as his main objective. This triggered new conflicts and worsened existing ones. I think this is at the basis of the high levels of violence that now characterise social conflict, along with the impunity with which repressive agencies act.
3. Was the repression of protests accompanied by legal changes that may have fueled police violence and increased impunity?
Legal changes have indeed also taken place, as part of a regional trend. Under pressure from the United States of America, all countries in the Southern Cone have introduced repressive reforms into their criminal codes, typifying various forms of social protest as criminal offences. An ambiguous figure that almost all countries incorporated was that of “fight against terrorism”.
In Bolivia, the government soon realised that it could not control society solely through the co-optation of social leadership – what I call “clientelistic social control” – and therefore began to deploy a strategy of repressive social control. The new tools it used went beyond police repression: they included for instance smear campaigns and “public lynching” of dissenting voices by government authorities. Any sector, institution or leader who appears as overly critical is accused by the president of being right-wing, destabilising or promoting coups. This in turn justifies the adoption of further measures such as the physical seizure of organisations’ headquarters, which has often occurred. Many grassroots organisations that were independent from the government, including large indigenous organisations such as CIDOB (Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia) have been forcibly taken over by government-affiliated groups that had their legitimately elected authorities removed and replaced with activists from their own ranks or even with government officials. In general, they sought to make this look as if this had been the outcome of a confrontation between groups, when in fact the police intervened to remove legitimate leaders and replace them with impostors. A recent example of this was the attempted takeover of APDHB (Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia) in February 2017.
Once the government was engaged in media lynching, it was only natural for a conviction to develop regarding the need to regulate those situations in which protesting is not acceptable. Various laws – including the Investment Promotion Law and the Mining Law, both passed in 2014 –, along with a number of supreme decrees, for instance those about cooperatives, classified a variety of forms of legitimate social opposition as criminal offences, in many cases carrying prison sentences ranging from 4 to 8 years. I do not know of any specific case in which the Investment Law has been applied to someone for blocking a road; this legislation works rather as deterrence of mobilisation against state-promoted initiatives.
4. Are there any specific issues or mobilised groups that are targeted with higher levels of violence?
Mobilisations with a national ambition and involving political questioning of the government are most harshly repressed. Such was the case of the mobilisation by mining cooperatives. In the pre-electoral period in 2014, miners were promised many things that eventually found their way into a Mining Law (Law No. 535/2014) granting them unrestricted access to exploitation areas. Failure to comply with these provisions led to their mobilisation in 2016.
At the same time, other sectors – particularly indigenous peoples – typically react when their territories and livelihoods are affected by extractive activities. 2011 was a turning point for them too. Until then, there were umbrella indigenous organisations at the regional and national levels. Since then, government action has focused on de-structuring indigenous organisation: most departmental, regional and national organisations have since been seized, or parallel organisations have been established. Indigenous communities’ capacity for national action against mining or hydrocarbon exploitation has therefore been greatly affected. These days, in the context of a large hydroelectric project north of La Paz, the government strategically avoids dealing with local actors, who are directly affected and therefore oppose the project, and deals instead with a regional leadership that no longer represents anybody but turns out to be their preferred political partner.
In dozens of territories, still known as TCOs (tierras comunitarias de origen or “original community lands”), simultaneous processes of resistance are taking place against a number of extractive projects. But these resistances are taking place on a local scale that is often almost imperceptible to the media and public opinion.
5. Have other fundamental civic space freedoms been affected?
Restrictions have been introduced in all areas, but the freedom of association has been hit the worst. From 2011 onwards, the government has targeted not only the directly affected groups mobilised against extractive activities but also the organisations supporting them through research, advocacy and by shaping public opinion. Thus, many research centres and environmental, human rights and indigenous rights NGOs have become enemies to be defeated by the state. In addition to systematically smearing them in public, the government has passed legislation – notably Law No. 351 on Legal Personalities (2013) – in order to deplete the urban civil society that works in solidarity or campaigns on behalf of indigenous and other excluded groups. Law No. 351 replaces the entire previous legal framework of the Civil Code and requires civil society to align its objectives and activities with government policies. More than in the forcible shutting down of organisations, the new legal framework has resulted in “silent suicide”. In a context in which, since judicial authorities are now elected by popular vote, the judiciary has become subordinate to the executive and due process guarantees fail, civil society has felt intimidated. Many organisations have decided to either close their doors or change their goals and lower their profile so as not to disturb power. In so doing, civil society has lost strength and independence.
Over the past few years, CEDIB has received countless inspections by various state agencies. Neither public offices nor private companies are subjected to the kind of controls that this small organisation has had to submit to. We have had audits of all kinds, including some that are blatantly illegal, as when we had to respond to a requirement to submit accounting documentation dating back more than twenty years, although the Commercial Code establishes an obligation to keep records going back just five years.
However, CEDIB is a prestigious centre and has a certain specific weight. In fact, the state is one of the main users of our services and data. So our relationship with the state is complex and contradictory, as the authorities demand resources from us all the while wishing we were politically aligned with the government. This leads to some authorities, as the vice president did at some point, launching attacks against us, while at the same time others keep recognising that they need our information and advice. And in the eyes of society and even the media – including para-governmental outlets – we are still a serious and credible organisation whose existence is vital for democracy. That, in a way, is what has kept us going.
6. How has civil society responded to the deterioration of its enabling environment?
Unfortunately, historic NGO networks have not been able to curb authoritarian advances. Other governments in the past had tried to deprive civil society of its autonomy, but had failed to do so because NGO networks used to be stronger. Vis-à-vis our current government, however, civil society organisations have become weak and intimidated, partly because of the already mentioned administrative restrictions and reprisals used against them, and also as a result of reductions in development aid funding.
Civil society has not just been attacked: it has also suffered divisions. In the face of reduced flows of international cooperation funds, many organisations were left without sources of external funding, which used to be prevalent in the sector, and therefore sought refuge in the state. Other organisations were co-opted not by means of state resources but by President Evo Morales’ developmentalist discourse, which accurately reflected their own ideals and trajectory. And for many others – I would say for the majority – what prevailed was the feeling of impotence vis-à-vis a government that proved itself capable of doing whatever they wanted with them, be it legally or extra-legally. In other words, fear prevailed given the credible threat of controls resulting in steep, impossible-to-pay fines and even in prison sentences for organisations’ staff.
As a result, there is now a large set of NGOs that are actually para-governmental organisations and survive on contracts, consultancy work and other state resources. In addition, there are a number of NGOs that have been founded and are directed by high state authorities. All senior public officials, starting with President Evo Morales, manage NGOs that have been set up in order to run government programmes with international cooperation or public funds. It has been reported that, for instance, a foundation run by the president has its own television channel and handles large state advertising contracts.
Still, along with three other organisations – the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights (APDHB), the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS) and the Centre for Local Development Studies and Support (CEADL) – we did submit a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in defence of the freedoms of associacion and expression as a negative ruling was issued by the Constitutional Court. But it was just the four of us, out of a very vast group of NGOs that did not come together in defence of these freedoms. Fear semed to be the common denominator among them all.
7. Have you missed out on international solidarity as a result of Latin American and global progressives’ sympathies for President Evo Morales? In which ways could the international community support civil society in Bolivia?
We are currently facing a transition scenario. President Morales can no longer run for re-election, and there are several crises underway. One of those crises has derived from the fall in commodities’ prices, which has had a major impact on this ultra-extractivist country that has placed all its bets on primary exports. In other words, we will have not just a change of government but also a change in the state, as a result of impending public spending restrictions. Politically, the upcoming transision must involve the recovery of infringed rights, which requires the repeal or reform of various pieces of legislation and the abandonment of intimidatory practices. It is necessary to ensure a favourable environment for the activities of civil society and journalists, to make public management transparent, and to build an agenda for the strengthening of civil society.
At the international level, the critical phase was overcome years ago. There was a period in which it was outrightly condemned to criticise, or even relativise, the very optimistic view that prevailed abroad about what was going on in Bolivia. We were told that criticism amounted to “play into the hands of the right” and in favour or international power centres. That ended even before TIPNIS: in 2010, the Mother Earth Summit (World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth) held in Cochabamba exposed major contradictions between what the government said abroad and what they did domestically: between its environmental discourse, on the one hand, and the expansion of extractivism and the advances of deforestation, on the other.
Another, more recent turning point was the Indigenous Communication Summit in November 2016. The Bolivian government acted as convenor of this annual summit of movements, and then tried to control it, bypassing the entire indigenous leadership from other countries. They did this so clumsily that even the groups that came in most convinced that in Bolivia there was an indigenous intercultural revolution underway, came out disillusioned. The government attempted to control them in the same way it has done with Bolivian indigenous organisations - they even accused them of having come to Bolivia to conspire to organise a coup, which made no sense.
In this context, the first thing we need from the international community is that they condemn the regression we have experienced in terms of fundamental rights. The legal framework established by Law No. 351 is rather suited to a dictatorship: a government requiring civil society to organise along its own objectives is completely unacceptable.
Second, we need a rapprochement with the civil societies of the countries in our region. In recent times, regional mafias have mobilised across borders, and we need common standards in order to fight them. Not only governments but also civil societies need to have an agenda beyond our own country’s borders, that is, with an international projection – regional to start with, and then global as well.
• The Centre of Information and Documentation Bolivia is one of Bolivia’s most prestigious and socially rooted civil society institutions. CEDIB administers one of the most important archives containing documents of major historical importance, and its research has great impact on public opinion.
• Get in touch with CEDIB through their Facebook page or website, or follow @cedib_com on Twitter
• Civic space in Bolivia is rated as ‘narrowed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor