Morales proved in Bolivia that democratic socialism can work – but the people cannot be ignored

The country's citizens rose up having been forced into becoming the silent majority, officials in Bolivia are in danger of letting history repeat itself

Slavoj Zizek
Tuesday 19 November 2019 11:08
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Bolivia police join protesters marching to demand free and fair elections

Although I am for over a decade a staunch supporter of Evo Morales, I must admit that, after reading about the confusion after Morales’ disputed electoral victory, I was beset by doubts: did he also succumb to the authoritarian temptation, as it happened to so many radical Leftists in power? However, after a day or two, things became clear.

Brandishing a giant leather-bound bible and declaring herself Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Añez, the second-vice president of the country’s Senate, declared: “The Bible has returned to the government palace.” She added: “We want to be a democratic tool of inclusion and unity” – and the transitional cabinet sworn into office did not include a single indigenous person.

This tells it all: although the majority of the population of Bolivia are indigenous or mixed, they were till the rise of Morales de facto excluded from political life, reduced to the silent majority. What happened with Morales was the political awakening of this silent majority which did not fit in the network of capitalist relations.

They were not yet proletarian in the modern sense, they remained locked into their premodern tribal social identities – here is how Alvaro Garcia Linera, Morales’ vice-president, described their lot: “In Bolivia, food was produced by Indigenous farmers, buildings and houses were built by Indigenous workers, streets were cleaned by Indigenous people, and the elite and the middle classes entrusted the care of their children to them. Yet the traditional left seemed oblivious to this and occupied itself only with workers in large-scale industry, paying no attention to their ethnic identity.”

To understand them, we should bring into picture the entire historical weight of their predicament: they are the survivors of perhaps the greatest holocaust in the history of humanity, the obliteration of the indigenous communities by the Spanish and English colonisation of the Americas.

The religious expression of their premodern status is the unique combination of Catholicism and belief in the Pachamama or Mother Earth figure. This is why, although Morales stated that he is a Catholic, in the current Bolivian Constitution (enacted in 2009) the Roman Catholic church lost its official status – its article 4 states: “The State respects and guarantees the freedom of religion and spiritual beliefs, in accordance to every individual’s world view. The State is independent from religion.”

And it is against this affirmation of indigenous culture that Anez’s display of the bible is directed – the message is clear: an open assertion of white religious supremacism, and a no less open attempt to put the silent majority back to their proper subordinate place. From his Mexican exile, Morales already appealed to Pope to intervene, and the Pope’s reaction will tell us a lot. Will Francis react as a true Christian and unambiguously reject the enforced re-Catholisation of Bolivia as what it is, as a political power-play which betrays the emancipatory core of Christianity?

If we leave aside any possible role of lithium in the coup (Bolivia has big reserves of lithium which is needed for batteries in electric cars and it has featured in a number of theories about what brought down Morales), the big question is: why is for overt a decade Bolivia such a thorn in the flesh of Western liberal establishment? The reason is a very peculiar one: the surprising fact that the political awakening of premodern tribalism in Bolivia did not result in a new version of the Sendero Luminoso or Khmer Rouge horror show. The reign of Morales was not the usual story of the radical Left in power which screws things up, economically and politically, generating poverty and trying to maintain its power through authoritarian measures. A proof of the non-authoritarian character of the Morales reign is that he didn’t purge army and police of his opponents (which is why they turned against him).

Morales and his followers were, of course, not perfect, they made mistakes, there were conflicts of interests in his movement. However, the overall balance is an outstanding one. Morales not Chavez, he did not have not oil money to quell problems, so his government has to engage in a hard and patient work of solving problems in the poorest country in Latin America. The result was nothing short of a miracle: economy thrived, poverty rate fell, healthcare improved, while all the democratic institutions so dear to liberals continued to function. The Morales government maintained a delicate balance between indigenous forms of communal activity and modern politics, fighting simultaneously for tradition and women rights,

To tell the entire story of the coup – and I am in no doubt it is a coup – in Bolivia, we need a new Assange who will bring out the relevant secret documents. What we can see now is that Morales, Linera and their followers were such a thorn in the flesh of the liberal establishment precisely because they succeeded: for over a decade radical Left was in power and Bolivia did not turn into Cuba or Venezuela. Democratic socialism is possible.

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