Evo Morales declared, before being sworn in as Bolivia’s president in January 2006, that he would “lead by obeying” (mandar obedeciendo), a slogan borrowed from Mexico’s Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. It was a sign he intended his presidency to be a collaboration with the social movements that helped bring him to power. His election victory in December 2005, with 53.7 percent of the vote, seemed like the culmination of years of intense campaigning against neoliberalism by his supporters. His party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), was to be a political tool to serve the interests of popular organizations and take a new approach to politics.
But after more than a decade, MAS is more like a war machine, its primary function to keep Morales in power, as demonstrated by its mobilization to campaign for his reelection in 2019. Attributing this development solely to Morales’s personal ambition misses the bigger issue: MAS faces the structural challenge of being in power while managing social movements that, despite increasing institutionalization, still take to the streets to defend their members’ interests.
Unions representing the cocaleros (coca growers) of Morales’s home region, Cochabamba, set up MAS in 1998; their aim was to get indigenous and union leaders elected to Congress by letting grassroots organizations pick their own candidates. Initially, MAS was more a federation of social organizations than a political party; members came from workers’ and small farmers’ unions, village committees, and indigenous communities, a guarantee that it represented the working class in a country that has a dense network of social organizations covering every aspect of life. This structure produced “corporatist democracy”: By bringing together diverse organizations, MAS could get its members to turn out to vote, and also mediate among a growing number of constituent organizations.
After its 2005 election victory, MAS ceded all responsibility for policy-making to the government and kept only the role of mediator between rival organizations vying for political office and party jobs. Member organizations’ loyalty to MAS varied according to how closely they were integrated into the party. Members’ first allegiance was to their own organization—union, community, or village—and only after to the party. It’s not uncommon in Bolivia for an organization to announce it is backing the government while opposing it, at the local or national level, in defense of sector-specific interests.
Strong links with the miners
When social conflict has heightened during Morales’s presidency, it has often been fueled by organizations within MAS, such as Fencomin, Bolivia’s national mining-cooperative federation, a MAS ally since 2005. Mining-cooperative members have strong links with the party, Congress, and the executive—in 2006 they controlled the strategically important ministry of mining—but have been behind two serious political crises: the clashes between mine-company employees and cooperative members at Huanuni in October 2006, in which 16 died; and, in 2016, the kidnap and death (reportedly at the hands of striking miners) of Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Rodolfo Illanes at a roadblock near Panduro, south of La Paz, during protests against a law that would tighten regulation of miners’ activities.