BOLIVIA: Increasing reduction of spaces immune to state co-optation or repression

CEDLA: Javier Gómez

Bolivia was home to a series of protests in 2018. CIVICUS speaks about these to Javier Gómez Aguilar, Executive Director of the Centre of Studies for Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA). Founded in 1985, CEDLA is a non-profit research centre dedicated to producing and disseminating critical knowledge about labour issues in order to influence public debate. CEDLA works directly with workers and their organisations, and with development institutions, financial counterparts, other social organisations and regional and international networks.

How would you describe the environment for civil society in Bolivia over the past year?

Our normative framework is that of a multiparty liberal democracy with periodic elections and separation of powers; however, there is an ongoing trend, which is apparent not only in Bolivia, towards a dominant party regime and the personal concentration of power. The Movement towards Socialism (MAS), led by President Evo Morales, is deeply rooted in Bolivia’s popular sectors, and over the course of 12 years in power it has taken over civil society space. It has done so through very different mechanisms: by criminalising protest, persecuting opponents, dividing social organisations, putting pressure on civil society organisations (CSOs), harassing them by applying tax or labour standard compliance regulations, acquiring media outlets, denying official advertising to independent media and monitoring social networks.

The use of these mechanisms has increased as the ruling party, despite remaining the biggest party, has lost support. As the government controls the four branches of government, it uses them to counter its progressive loss of legitimacy. Discontent has increased and so have protests, albeit not in the same proportion. The government continues controlling the streets and retains the capacity to mobilise its supporters, particularly public servants and sectors of the population who depend on funds transfers or state subsidies.

If any CSO denounces violations of environmental rights or norms, the government responds very aggressively and denounces the spokesperson, accusing them of having links to unspeakable political interests, notably those of US imperialism. CEDLA recently published a report on the situation in state-owned companies, and the government aggressively attacked us. They did not discuss content. After all, we used information that was already public, and all we did was analyse it. Instead they just sought to discredit the source. They may try to link us to the radicalised left, while at the same time, as we receive European funding, accusing us of representing the right-wing ideology that has won power in Europe. They do whatever it takes to build a narrative in which we appear as actively conspiring against a progressive government.

In addition, in November 2018 an audio clip was leaked in which the police commander informed the authorities about actions undertaken to “monitor” journalists and opponents on social media, and said something that was very revealing: that actions were being taken to both “inform and misinform.”

As a result, many lean towards self-censorship or self-restraint, and the public agenda weakens as a consequence. In the face of persisting activism, the government resorts to stigmatisation, treating activists as liars and subjecting them to fiscal persecution and criminalisation, even including judicial persecution. This has happened to all the social movements that mobilised in recent years. The most extreme case, throughout 2018, has been that of the Yungas coca producers, whose demands to expand production have been systematically denied by the government. Instead the producers of Chapare, the other coca region, where President Morales comes from, were allowed to expand. The Yungas coca producers have mobilised for years, but it was in mid-2018 that the government began to denounce their alleged links to armed sectors, and in August 2018 a mobilisation ended with a strange episode that resulted in the death of a police officer, and the main leader of the movement was arrested.

This situation invariably repeats itself with each sector that mobilises and in one way or another represents a threat to the government: their protests end with their leaders denounced for violence, prosecuted in the absence of due process guarantees and detained preventively for prolonged periods. It is quite common that, as protest leaders are let go with some form alternative measure, they choose to leave the country. Demobilisation ensues.

 

What caused protests by students in 2018, and how did the government react to them?
Student mobilisations were triggered by the limited budget allocation to El Alto Public University (UPEA), a new university that was born out of the popular struggles of 2000, which caters to a lot of students but is quite poor. UPEA mobilisations started in early 2018, and in March a student, Jonathan Quispe Vila, was killed in a protest. The government immediately claimed that the student had been killed as a result of the impact of a marble of the sort that students were throwing, although available home videos appear to show that he was hit by a police-issue bullet. In any case, there was no clear investigation of what happened, and although initially further demonstrations were held to protest against the death, the ultimate effect of repression was demobilisation due to fear of confrontation with the police.
Another relevant mobilisation of 2018, which started in late 2017, was that of medical doctors. Health professionals held a long strike and staged numerous protests against a new article in the Criminal Code that introduced sanctions of between five and nine years in prison for medical negligence and malpractice, following what was barely more than an administrative process. Health workers mobilised over the end-of-year holidays of 2017 and up to 21 February 2018, the day when citizens mobilise to keep on the agenda the fact that in 2016 President Morales lost a referendum that should have denied him the prerogative of running for another term in office. In the process of the health workers’ protests, several instances of confrontation, violence and persecution took place. In January 2018, the police violently broke into the Convent of San Francisco in La Paz and arrested doctors and medical students who had found safe haven there following the repression they faced when trying to block the passage of the Dakar Rally, which was routed through Bolivia. This was extraordinary: historically, the church in Bolivia protected various protesters, including those involved in hunger strikes against the dictatorship, and up to now there had never been any such intervention. There are almost no spaces immune to state repression anymore. In the case of the doctors, mobilisation gave way when the Criminal Code was repealed.
In the face of every mobilisation, the state apparatus behaves in the same way. Even when it faces sectoral demands that in themselves do not necessarily imply a political challenge, the government allows conflict to grow, feeds polarisation, waits for scuffles and confrontations with the police to arise and then accuses the leaders of mobilised groups of being behind the violence and has them arrested and prosecuted. Opposition members side with these movements, arguing that the government is not listening to them, and then conflicts that were initially sectoral or territorial end up being treated as destabilisation attempts orchestrated by the opposition.

 

When and why did protests against presidential re-election reignite? Why was this issue not solved once and for all with the 2016 referendum?

The February 2016 referendum was organised by the president himself, with the intention of getting a green light to change the Constitution - a Constitution that had been passed under his administration - in order to enable a further re-election. The referendum mechanism gives citizens the last word, so that the issue of re-election should have been resolved for good with the ‘no’ victory, and the president should not have been able to run again.

The current Constitution allows for only one re-election, but President Morales is already in his third term; the first one was not taken into account because it took place under the previous Constitution. After 12 years in power, the dispute over re-election reflects the ruling party’s institutional fragility. A prohibition on re-election would not amount to a ban against the party: the MAS could present another candidate. But at this point there is no successor to Evo Morales because, instead of acknowledging at an earlier stage that there would be no re-election, and therefore focusing on producing an alternative leadership, the government devoted itself to finding alternative ways to overcome the re-election ban.

Given that the ‘no’ option won by a very narrow margin, it has been said that the vote was ‘almost’ a draw, and therefore the result was not conclusive. In the judicial arena, two pro-government representatives filed a claim of unconstitutionality, invoking the Pact of San José de Costa Rica (the American Convention on Human Rights), which has a status higher than the Constitution. They say that because the Convention guarantees the full right of citizens to vote and be voted for, the prohibition on re-election would be a violation of the president’s political rights.

In December 2017, just days before its term ended, the Constitutional Court accepted the plaintiffs’ claim and authorised Evo Morales to seek a further re-election. It should be emphasised that Constitutional Court judges are elected and serve five-year terms, and the judges who issued that ruling are all public officials now. In other words, the judiciary is not an independent power. We are currently awaiting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ pronouncement on the subject.

The government retains about 30 per cent electoral support and mobilises a lot of people on the streets. So while fighting on the judicial front, it has also tried another way, through the approval of a new political parties bill that mandates that primary elections be held in January 2019. Right after the law was passed, the Electoral Tribunal enabled the president and vice-president to run in the primaries. Participation in these elections is mandatory for parties that want to present candidates in the general elections, but is voluntary for voters, and restricted to party members. Registries are in very bad shape: when the lists of registered voters were published, many of us found ourselves listed as members of parties that we had never been affiliated with. The opposition has insisted that this election is unnecessary, since all the parties - including the incumbent - have registered single candidates. However, the Electoral Tribunal ratified it for 27 January. Now that President Morales has been proclaimed as a candidate, it will be increasingly difficult to turn back, because this move changed the focus of the discussion: from discussing President Morales’ political rights and whether they would be violated by a re-election ban, we have moved onto a discussion of the right of MAS members and activists to vote for their favourite candidate.

 

Is civil society divided over the re-election issue? Would you say that Bolivian citizens are polarised around the issue?

There are demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, expressions in favour of and against the re-election. President Morales retains a very important level of support, particularly among public servants. There are organised sectors that receive abundant state resources and mobilise systematically against any anti-re-election protest. At the same time citizen platforms - groups of women, young people, students and sections of the middle class - have mobilised under the 'Bolivia said no' banner to demand respect for the results of the referendum. During one of the recent marches by university students the front of the Electoral Court building in Santa Cruz was set on fire. According to the students, the fire was caused by infiltrators who also caused much other damage. But the government immediately arrested the protest leaders, one of whom was indicted in a single day: he was given an abbreviated trial, pleaded guilty and was given a three-year suspended prison sentence - something quite extraordinary in the context a very slow judicial system, in which 80 per cent of prisoners have not been sentenced. The student was freed with alternative measures, but the objective of creating fear among mobilised sectors was achieved. It clearly showed that if you mobilise, you can end up in jail.

 

What are the long-term changes that have been seen in Bolivia?

No matter who wins the next election, scheduled for October 2019, the next government will be transitional in nature. The social transformations of the past 12 years have been profound and, I believe, irreversible. Inclusion may have been achieved through the market, but the policy changes have nonetheless been enormous, and they have taken place without any dramatic social conflict. We could have had a bloody revolution, but instead we had a very institutionalised process of social change. The fact that there are representatives, senators, mayors and governors of indigenous descent has become a natural occurrence. Out of the eight presidential candidates competing in the upcoming primaries, four are of indigenous descent - Aymara or Quechua - and each represents a different political and ideological strand, including one on the far right. Inclusion and the realisation of the rights of indigenous people was originally a leftist cause and was indeed pushed from the left, but nowadays being indigenous no longer equates with supporting alternative causes or political renewal. Being indigenous is compatible with a diversity of ideological options and no longer represents anything close to a position of moral superiority: it has become part of the mainstream, and therefore encompasses all the complexities and contradictions of society. That alone reveals how much this country has changed.

 

Civic space in Bolivia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with CEDLA through its website or Facebook page, or follow @cedlabo on Twitter.

 

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