Blockades are the workhorse of Bolivian political protest. People who live in La Paz, the seat of government, have grown accustomed to them. They know that, nearly any day, they can expect to be descending one of the steeply angled downtown streets, or squeezed into the back of one of the minibuses, or vans, that compose the mass transit system, when suddenly traffic will stop or dynamite will explode. Depending on the location of the blockade, it can be a nuisance or, occasionally, something more. In the tropical region of Chapare, where President Evo Morales first made his mark as an organizer with the coca growers’ union, a blockade can sever the main link connecting the highland plains to the lowland river basin and effectively bring the country to a halt.
The blockade is a simple tactic. In many cases, it requires just enough people to span the width of a road, although the ones with more staying power generally employ barriers or burning tires. In La Paz recently, I happened upon a blockade that took up multiple city blocks near the Plaza Murillo, which hosts the president’s residence and the national legislature. The blockade consisted of dozens of people who simply sat down in the road at regular intervals, rendering it impassable. Frequently, a blockade will be the culmination of a long march, during which marchers rely in part on the sympathy and solidarity of local residents in the regions they pass.
For all the disruption they cause, I have rarely heard someone in Bolivia complain about a blockade. The political culture of Bolivia is defined by extreme grassroots discipline and a history of agitation; unions are strong, and neighborhood associations are often the most surefire way to obtain basic services. Despite all of this, a blockade that took place in fall 2016 was distinct. For one, its leaders insist it was more of a vigil; they let certain people through. Secondly, it was on water; the mode of transport being blocked was fluvial. The blockade took place on the Beni River, upstream from the Amazonian town of Rurrenabaque. It was achieved with a rope strung across the river. People from little towns along the river’s edge remained there for nearly two weeks, the men armed with bows and arrows. They did not let through any boat carrying food or equipment that could have been intended for a team of geologists and engineers who were preparing a study of the site for two extremely large hydroelectric dams. Eventually, an engineer came to the site of the blockade and announced that his team was leaving. His company didn’t want to pursue a project that ran contrary to the will of the local people.
Over the course of more than a decade in office—a longer consecutive streak than any other Bolivian president—Evo Morales has modeled his legacy on a hybrid “process of change” (el proceso de cambio has been Morales’s phrase for his reforms since his first term), hinged on asserting indigenous rights and culture and restructuring the country’s economy. The latter has involved raising taxes and royalties on hydrocarbons to implement a series of social benefit programs, and a massive public works program. Thanks to strong commodity prices, this has been a success. Better incomes for labor have reduced inequality, transfers to the elderly and schoolchildren have helped bring down poverty, and even unlikely observers like the IMF have praised Bolivia’s exceptionally strong economic growth. The former is more nebulous and complex, and its attendant fervent, occasionally populist, rhetoric ignited passions at the start of Morales’ time in office.
But in the intervening years, a growing number of activists—including members of Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party and even his government—have become disillusioned with what they see as continued policies of resource extraction that run square into his stated agenda. According to this view, it should have been the government who brought a stop to the hydroelectric dams project so vehemently opposed by lowland indigenous groups. Instead, it was the government pushing the project. The proposed dams, at two sites called El Bala and El Chepete, are only the most recent projects to ignite dismay over the government’s perceived devolution. In the years since Morales took office, the government has issued exploratory permits to a growing number of foreign gas and oil companies, overseen a startling acceleration of deforestation, expanded mining concessions, spearheaded massive building programs, and relaxed its position toward genetically modified crops. These departures from Morales’s initial ambitions were betokened by the violent police crackdown on a 2011 indigenous march against a proposed highway. The repression prompted Bolivia’s first female minister of defense, Cecilia Chacón, to resign in protest. Since then, a growing number of critics have emerged from Morales’s traditional bases of support. Over coffee in La Paz, Chacón told me that the current Bolivian government, like so many high-minded leftist governments before it, has become seized by the recursive logic of power.
In February 2016, Morales held a referendum to relax term limits and extend his stay in the presidential palace, already into a controversial third term (presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but in 2013, the constitutional court declared his first didn’t count because it had been served under the previous constitution). Exhausted of terms and bereft of a viable successor, Morales had been searching for ways to stay in office. The referendum failed. Though Morales remains popular with large swathes of his base, many of his former supporters believe he betrayed parts of his original agenda, or that the MAS’s defining plurality has been subsumed by autocratic tendencies. But in November Morales was saved by the courts again: the six justices of the Plurinational Constitutional Court unanimously ruled that term limits were a breach of the president’s human rights. The case was brought by MAS legislators, who were likely worried about the future of the party without its leader. Even though the MAS spurned party politics at its genesis in the early 1990s and billed itself as a “political instrument” representing a coalition of grassroots social movements, the fracturing of that coalition and the coalescence of the remaining movements around Morales in the twelve years he has held office have made it difficult to imagine the future of the MAS without him.
Support from social movements and unions that propelled Morales into office has undergone a series of exorcisms and adjustments that have eroded the foundation of the MAS. Some social movement leaders have been brought into the party, effectively weakening their organizations’ dissenting roles.Morales has drummed up new allies in traditional bastions of dissent, particularly in the country’s east, known as the Media Luna, where some of the most racist chants against him originated and where a violent autonomy movement at the beginning of his term nearly split the country in two. But Morales’s new allies are political alliances, and they lack the revolutionary fervor of his old ones. Aside from his staunchest supporters, in the Chapare, in some highland rural indigenous communities, and among certain groups like the Bartolina Sisa peasant women’s federation, there is a general sense of listlessness that has, in the wake of the November court decision, curdled into sporadic protest.
As the government watches commodity prices tumble and its coffers dwindle, the strategies to ensure future income have become more scrambled and efforts to silence political enemies bolder. The drive to execute projects like the dams—seen as necessary to ensure the government’s income when gas prices won’t—has imperiled even highly visible opponents. In July, police told one of the most outspoken critics of the hydroelectric dams project, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solón, that he was under investigation for alleged wrongdoings committed six years prior. When I met Solón in La Paz a few weeks later, an international campaign had been launched demanding the government drop the cooked-up charges. “The problem is that when progressive forces on the left enter government they are captured by the logic of power,” Solón told me, echoing the former defense minister Chacón. “The logic of power is a logic in which to preserve power for oneself, one seeks more power, and everything that one sees is measured as a function of how it can preserve power.” The police visit, Solón said, had not taken him by surprise.
The conflict that ignited dissent from the left and spurred Chacón’s resignation in 2011 seemed, at the time, to be a bizarre aberration from Morales’s avowed sympathies. Around six hundred protesters set out on a 370-mile march to La Paz to demand that the government abandon plans to build a highway through indigenous territory connecting the sleepy, coca-growing town of Villa Tunari to the equally tranquil town of San Ignacio de Moxos. Part of the rationale for the project were various agreements with Brazilian companies, who had contracts to build the highway and a concession to explore the area for petroleum. Midway through the march, near the end of September, national police forces appeared in trucks to disband the protest and detain its leaders. Using tear gas, police in riot gear taped activists’ mouths shut while dragging them toward waiting buses. Footage later broadcast on television showed half a dozen police tackling the leader, Fernando Vargas, to the ground and punching him repeatedly in the head.
Immediately following the police intervention, sympathizers from nearby regions rushed to block the buses carrying marchers, forcing them to re-route to Rurrenabaque. There, people blockaded the airport to foil attempts at evacuating indigenous leaders by airplane, and eventually managed to release the marchers being held. After a period of convalescence, most of the marchers eventually resumed their pilgrimage. Seventy-four people had been injured in the confrontation, and the government’s reputation was sorely damaged. “It became a major headline, because it’s irrational to have an indigenous president repressing indigenous peoples when the colonial rhetoric has taught us that it’s the whites, the q’aras [outsiders] who repress the indigenous peoples,” Sarela Paz, an anthropologist and expert on the conflict, told me.
After the repression, the government backtracked and passed a law proclaiming the intangibility of the area—formally known as the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, or TIPNIS, its acronym in Spanish. Since then, the government has maintained that Morales did not give the order for the intervention or sign off on it, and the president himself claimed not to know it was going on; investigations ordered by Morales have not determined who gave the directive. Chacón, who told me that as defense minister she had no inkling of the planned intervention, has testified that Morales and other government ministers were monitoring the events as they unfolded. A few days later, Morales made a public statement asking forgiveness—and telling the country that he had suffered worse at the hands of the US-backed drug enforcement agents when he was a union organizer for coca growers. But then the government went to work in the TIPNIS region, proposing public works projects, recruiting allies among the opposition, and disseminating misleading bulletins about the meaning of intangibility. In early August of 2017, the legislature stripped the park of its protections, allowing for the construction of the highway.
If the government has won, which still isn’t clear, it has come at a cost. Paz told me that Morales’s traditional partners in the social movements, including the coca and farmers unions and the Bartolina Sisas, were blindsided by the aftershocks of the 2011 resistance. Forming the powerful nucleus in the government-aligned power structure, the organizations didn’t anticipate a challenge from their outnumbered allies. It wasn’t the first time such factions clashed. The initial march that set out for La Paz from the area was in protest of coca growers’ encroachment on indigenous territory. That was in 1990, when indigenous claims for recognition of collective land ownership reached their modern apogee. The march led to the titling of the TIPNIS and laid the foundation for establishing, via the INRA law, semi-autonomous Communal Lands of Origin. Since then, dozens of such lands have been registered. Coca growers objected to the initial titling, claiming it reflected “ecological imperialism.” TIPNIS revealed how the coalition that propelled Morales to power was fragile from the start.
Raised in poverty, Morales was buoyed to the forefront of the national consciousness by coca unions that inherited a strict syndicalism from their members’ backgrounds in highland mines, and his rise coincided with a flourishing indigenous mobilization in the formal political sphere. His first bid for the presidency, in 2002, came in second to the former revolutionary party MNR (which, in 1952, eliminated literacy requirements for suffrage and instated extensive agrarian reform). The same year, a competitor party led by highland Aymara activist Felipe Quispe also garnered a significant number of votes. Morales’s and Quispe’s platforms shared similarities that rendered them totally distinct in the Bolivian political context, including an emphasis on reorienting the national identity to a pluralism that prioritized elements of Andean cosmology. When Morales, who is of Aymara and Quechua descent, emerged victorious in 2005, the priorities of his government were structured around the October Agenda, a set of social movement demands that included nationalizing key industries and calling a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. The constitution, approved by referendum in 2009, reimagined the state as a conglomerate of nations and dramatically extended a process of local and communal autonomy. Its preamble established the mandate of its authors as relying on Pachamama, or mother Earth, a basic concept shared by many distinct indigenous cosmologies.
Morales and his government have been keenly attuned to symbolic traditions: the inaugurations of his presidential terms have always been held at Tiwanaku, the archeological site where, in pre-colonial genesis stories, creator Viracocha made a prototype of humankind before calling the beings out from the Earth. The director of the Tiwanaku archaeological site told me that it is still considered an active waka, or site of spiritual importance. Both Morales and his vice president, Alvaro García Linera, are a regular presence at solstice ceremonies, arriving in helicopters shortly before the sun’s first rays pierce across the horizon. In the early years of Morales’s government, articulating a state policy that countered what it saw as capitalistic approach to environmental resources and rooted itself discursively in Andean cosmological principles was of central importance.
This was especially true internationally, and Bolivia went to great lengths in diplomatic fora to make itself the voice of stewardship of the natural world, including bringing a list of proposals to the United Nations that outlined a bill of rights for the mother Earth and a plan to prosecute violations in an international court of law. In 2009, when international talks under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen failed to meet the grassroots political hopes of the moment, Morales hosted an alternative climate summit. Pablo Solón, the head of Bolivia’s UN delegation at the time and a key player in the alternative summit, became the leading voice of Bolivia’s opposition to the inefficacy of the international climate diplomacy process and the paradigm of applying market-based logic to environmental protection.
Embittered by the dams projects and the political persecution of men like Solón, activists and scholars around the country have returned to the concept of indigeneity to make political claims. Indigenous groups defend their territorial struggle based on existential arguments linked to economic systems and livelihoods. They also make transcendental arguments: the land is sacred and only those who appreciate that unique divine aspect can adequately defend it.
It is the latter that accounts for Morales’s aligning himself with naturalistic spiritual expression to strengthen his symbolic bond to indigeneity—enabling a cohesive vision of himself as representative of the movements from which he was derived—even while justifying his expansionist policies of resource development. In Morales’s own discourse, the essential conflict is still between imperialist elements of the neoliberal right and the social movements, farmers, and indigenous communities he represents. Morales’s priority remains closing abysmal gaps between the poor and the rich by funding projects that require deep public pockets. Dissent, no matter its provenance, is, in this formulation, an imperialism-tinged threat to his economic project.
In late July, I travelled up the river that would be mechanized by the proposed hydroelectric dams at El Bala and El Chepete. The Beni River is broad, brown and powerful, its currents like sinews of a muscle pulling downstream. Trees usually grow right down to the river edge, but wide swathes of sandy bank also appear regularly, giving way to agricultural plots or gesturing toward thatched rooftops issuing blue smoke. The people who still oppose the hydroelectric dams—mostly local community leaders—complained that they are under sabotage by a regime that is indifferent to their lives and cynical about their resistance. Since their successful blockade, organizers told me that the communities up and down the river have been subjected to a sustained campaign of deception and manipulation.
In 2016, Solón and his foundation obtained feasibility reports compiled by an Italian firm named Geodata that was contracted by the Bolivian national power company to survey sites for the dams, estimate some of the impacts, and draw up a preliminary budget. The area, above the northern tropical foothills of the Cordillera Real range that rings La Paz, had been eyed for dams in 1958 and again in the 1990s during the government of former dictator Hugo Banzer. But the projects had been abandoned over concern for their potential impacts. The Geodata report outlined an approach that improved on prior proposals, but would still entail 94 square kilometers of flooding at El Bala and 677 square kilometers at El Chepete. The project is part of a $27 billion government push to build thirty-five hydroelectric dams by 2025 to fortify Bolivia’s ambitions to be an energy provider for South America; the potential energy produced at El Bala and El Chepete is intended to be for export to Brazil. Of the slated 11,000 megawatts these thirty-five dams are meant to produce, nearly 3,700 megawatts are slated to issue from the dams at El Bala and El Chepete.
Late in the fall of 2016, during a public appearance, the minister of energy let slip that the average price for which Bolivia has sold hydroelectric energy to Brazil over the last decade was $52 per megawatt hour. Solón seized on this. According to Geodata’s report, the project was economically viable if the price per megawatt hour was $70. It also estimated the cost of producing a megawatt hour at El Chepete to be $55 and $81 at El Bala, and recommended postponing the latter project until economic conditions improved. The government’s own data seemed to indicate that the project was unviable. Worse, funding it with external financing would double the debt load of Bolivia.
One of the leaders of the dam resistance activists named Valentin Luna, who is also the head of a federation of eighteen river communities, ferried me up and down the river with him as he tended to business-related logistics and consulted about the progress of the dams. Luna is less concerned with the external debt of Bolivia than with his immediate political predicament. After the blockade, representatives from La Paz started making more visits to the Beni River and cultivating alliances; in June, teams from Geodata returned to conduct a technical site evaluation. One by one, Luna told me, the leaders who had been unanimously opposed to the project last November started signing documents indicating their support for bringing the study to its completion. He said the government essentially bought off opponents by making promises to extend services and implement public works. “They promised a bunch of projects that are in fact already the responsibility of the government—bringing electricity; building schools,” Luna said. “They confused the people. Because since these things are already an obligation of the state, how could they offer it as an exchange?”
A few days later, I visited Luna at his office in Rurrenabaque, where he helps run a community tourism agency that takes visitors into the Madidi National Park—one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, nearly 100 square kilometers of which would be flooded by the Chepete dam. He was talking to a community leader from far upriver, who has been one of the most intransigent about cooperating with the government. The men were comparing notes about where other activists stood, speculating about who were proving easy to coopt and badmouthing those they considered most credulous. Hermindo Villes Gutierrez, the leader of a community called Asuncion del Quiquibey, was in a sour mood. He said that representatives of the national power company had made veiled threats to community members, hinting that people who didn’t cooperate would be forced to leave the area. (According to the plans published by the Solon Foundation, they will probably have to leave anyway as some of the estimated 5,164 people who will be subjected to forced relocation by the combined Chepete/Bala project.)
If the dams are built, Villes is convinced that his community will be destroyed. “[Morales] is always talking about protecting the mother Earth, but with this project, what is he saying? What is he doing? He is going against his own laws,” Villes told me. “Morales says beautiful things. But the reality is the opposite. If he were really indigenous, he would be supporting us. He would be supporting the laws protecting mother Earth.” After a while, Villes returned to talking with Luna. They discussed the investigation against Solón, and an impending ceremony they would hold upriver. When he addressed me, Villes spoke with urgency, but when he turned back to Luna, his speech became drawn out. He took long pauses, and issued soft approbations. Birds squawked gutturally from the darkness outside. There were still many hours remaining before sunrise.
Reporting in Bolivia was supported by a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP)