Reading Bolivia in the U.S. Press

June 29, 2008

If one reads the mainstream U.S. press to understand recent events in Bolivia, the following composite story emerges: Bolivia is a deeply divided and fractured country of profound cleavages, bitter fragmentation, and civil conflict, most of which can be attributed to the country’s president, Evo Morales, elected in late 2005.

A member of the Aymara ethnic group and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales is trying to give Indians a bigger role in government and a greater share of the economic pie. This has exacerbated tensions between Indians and the light-skinned descendants of the Spanish elite and inflamed regional tensions between the free-market-oriented east and the socialist tendencies of western Bolivia. Furthermore, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is Morales’s major ally, financial backer, and mentor. As Venezuelan cash pours into Bolivia, Morales hands out much of it himself.

Eschewing business attire for jeans and the colorfully woven ponchos of his Aymara tribe, he flies to remote outposts—sometimes on a Venezuelan helicopter—to satisfy requests. Morales’s club-wielding supporters, many of whom are from El Alto, an indigenous shantytown on the rim of the city of La Paz, have often clashed with the celebrating autonomy backers of the light-skinned east. With the help of Chávez, Morales has created an armed indigenous militia that resembles Chávez’s Bolivarian circles.

Even though Morales was democratically elected, he has weakened democracy, and his confrontational approach threatens social and political stability. For example, Morales created a constituent assembly that sought to impose radical reforms on the country by enshrining them in a new constitution. When the assembly violently fell apart, with the opposition abstaining from a final vote, Morales held a rump session in which he hurriedly tried to pass his constitutional reforms.

Meanwhile, in May three departments in Bolivia’s eastern zone held a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly (85%) approved measures calling for greater political autonomy from the central government, in an American-style bid for greater states’ rights.

I base this composite story on a close reading of 53 articles dealing with Bolivia published between January 2007 and May 2008 by the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Washington Times.1 The composite reflects recurring dis tortions in mainstream journalistic writing on Bolivia, distortions that came into sharp relief in May, when the elites in the country’s eastern departments sponsored their so-called autonomy referendum. The composite offers a few outright falsehoods, like the “indigenous militias,” but beyond inaccuracy, U.S. reporting misrepresents historical processes, MAS policies, and the significance of ethnic differences, while framing events in a narrative template that reflects external perceptions (and fears) of change rather than Bolivian reality.

We can see this most clearly by focusing on two salient trends in the reporting: (1) the personalization of Morales as the representative of Bolivia’s transformation backed by social movements and (2) the misrepresentation of both the new Bolivian Constitution and the so-called Autonomy Statutes of the business and regionalist elite.


Though sometimes light-hearted, the coverage of Morales as a colorful (read “ethnic”) figure generally implies that beyond him and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party lie dangerous collectivist projects. As a “populist,” wannabe “strongman,” or “militant socialist,” Morales is said to earn popularity by playing on “grievances of the poor” through policies dismissed as ultimately destined to fail. These policies are said to be “copycat” ideas that follow the “playbook of his great friend” Chávez. Yet while ascribing most of Morales’s ideas to Chávez and old-style populism, reporters are also quick to characterize Morales as premodern, indigenous, and radically other—thus merging two terms, populist and ethnic, whose meanings to most U.S. readers prefigure a gross (mis)understanding of Bolivia’s people and events.

When portrayed as an ethnic, Morales is said to favor “his” indigenous supporters. The suggestion is that leaders who have an ethnic identity (other than Euro-Americans, of course) must necessarily represent only their “fellow indigenous people.” This dovetails with U.S. imaginaries about tribal, ethnic, or sectarian politics—whether of Bolivian Aymaras, Iraqi Sunnis, or Kenyan Kikuyus—as predetermined by group politics. At an extreme is the antiquated portrayal by The Washington Post’s Peter Goodman, who wrote a dismissive critique of “populism” in the paper’s business section, characterizing Morales as a “tribesman” of the Aymara. The word tribe has no utility for describing any collectivity in Bolivia, and the primitivist overtones of such usage are clear enough.

More common, however, though equally misleading, are phrasings like that of The New York Times’ Simon Romero, who refers to Morales as a “member of the Aymara ethnic group” and, in the same sentence, implies that the Aymara are his main “supporters.” One cannot hold “membership” in whatever one takes to be “Aymara” in Bolivia. Ethnic grouptribe, reflects a very Western (and colonial) view of difference, assuming that “ethnics” naturally operate as organic groups. Such terms are of little use for understanding indigenous politics in Bolivia (or ethno-cultural difference anywhere). For many U.S. readers, terms like tribe and ethnic raise the specter of anti-modern traditionalism at best, or savage violence at worst.

There is no attempt to delve into the complexity of indigenous proposals or the sociological reality of indigenous peoples, which are heterogeneous within and across Bolivian society. Nor do reporters try to untangle distinctions of class, race, ethnicity, language, and region, situating ethnic populism as (inviable) traditionalism in a false dichotomy against (inevitable) market-friendly globalization. Willfully or not, U.S. reporters thereby contribute to the Bolivian right’s tactic of fomenting precisely this logic of ethno-territorial and ideological polarization, which effectively undermines the MAS agenda.

Beyond the question of his identity, reporters characterize Morales’s election as the historical origin and flash point for recent conflicts rather than as the latest episode in many decades, if not centuries, of popular and indigenous movement struggle. For instance, The Miami Herald reported that conflicts derived from the “draft constitution that Mr. Morales has been seeking since the day he was elected.” In this way, Morales and his democratic election become the problem. (The demand for the new constitution in fact originated in the late 1990s within indigenous movements, not the MAS.) Poverty and inequality, to be sure, are frequently mentioned. Yet Morales is portrayed as pursuing radical, strife-producing, and ill-informed policies, and doing so in the name of his individual thirst for power in a “grand plan to shape Bolivia into his own vision of a socialist state.” Reporters thus portray Morales as a dangerous aberration, an Indian parrot of Chávez rather than the historical expression of deep-rooted social phenomena.


The second area of distortion revolves around the MAS-supported constitution and the so-called Autonomy Statutes drafted by the self-selected leaders of Santa Cruz, the urban center of right-wing opposition to the MAS. The substance, legality, and legitimacy of these two documents are grossly distorted. Most importantly, there is no basis for suggesting that they share any legal equivalence.

As most reporters write, the MAS constitution, approved by a majority of the Constitutional Assembly in December 2007, does face problems of legality and legitimacy. With supporting votes of 165 out of 255, it was indeed five votes short of the needed two-thirds majority. To become legal, it will be put to a referendum. Yet the draft constitution was voted on by assembly members elected from all political parties in national elections. They were not MAS appointees, though The Miami Herald, for example, implied as much by writing that Morales “created the 255 member [constitutional] assembly.”

In late 2007 The New York Times paternalistically chided Morales for hurrying to approve the constitution in a “rump assembly” (an oft-repeated phrase, though the regionalists’ illegal autonomy “assembly” went unquestioned). The new constitution’s legitimacy is also questioned because of the context of violence in which it was approved. Yet the right provoked the violence exactly for this purpose, though most news sources imply that the government caused the violence simply by carrying out the (legal) process of the constitutional assembly itself.

Moreover, reporters clearly do not understand the new constitution’s measures. Land reform—the one constitution-related issue that has merited repeated mention, for its assumed similarities to measures taken in Venezuela and the imputed anti-capitalist and socialist collectivization it represents—is repeatedly said to “dismantle large landholdings.” In fact, the reform, which began during the conservative neoliberal era of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, neither seeks to expropriate productive land, nor to redistribute it from whites to Indians, as reporters suggest. The MAS land reform deepens the existing law by merely accelerating its implementation, long blockaded by the elite, and will only expropriate unproductive, illegally titled lands that do not fulfill a social function. The new constitution guarantees the right to private property. (There is an ongoing dispute about how much land one can own, whether up to 12,350 or 24,700 acres—both still quite large—a sticking point in the constitution that will be put to a referendum.)

On the issue of legitimacy, the autonomy statutes put forth by the Santa Cruz elite and their supporters in three other provinces may possess a circumscribed degree of it among the urban middle and upper classes, at least compared to the constitution. But they possess no legality, however construed. They were written by unelected figures (funded by European and U.S. aid, with portions of the Santa Cruz statute plagiarized from Catalonia’s). They were put up for approval by a “pre-autonomous assembly” handpicked by the department governor and the unelected business chamber known as the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee. Finally, Santa Cruz’s statute was voted on in an illegal referendum on May 4, 2008, a public spectacle rather than a legal procedure.

Nonetheless, reporters invariably exaggerated questions about the legitimacy of the constitution and ignored or downplayed the illegality of the autonomy statute. For instance, while dismissing the constitution, The New York Times did not describe how the autonomy statutes were created, only noting that the departments “approved” them. The Times referred to the Santa Cruz assembly as if it were an elected legislative body passing its own resolution to give the department a “bigger share of tax and petroleum revenues.” Not only can a department—even were its assembly duly elected—not vote to grant itself more national revenues and resources, but this particular “pre-autonomous assembly” was a farcical stage play that would elsewhere be dismissed as a de facto putsch. The Times and other papers nonetheless granted it credence.

The coverage of the May 4 autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz reflected ongoing distortion. In all cases, U.S.-based writers, as with their colleagues in the elite-controlled Bolivian press, exaggerated the significance of the “yes” vote on May 4. In the wider department of Santa Cruz, 477,872 people voted “yes” to the autonomy statute, representing 85.6% of those who voted. Yet with abstention at 38%, and considering “no” and null ballots, this support dwindles to 51%, roughly 18% of the department’s 2.5 million people. Though one should not deny people the right to regional identity, and some decentralizing measures are certainly reasonable, this was a vote in an illegal process marked by a spurious and racist claim to “autonomy.” It was, in essence, a glorified opinion poll, reflecting neither broad opposition to the MAS government nor support for the region’s business elite.

Some writers, including even conservative Andres Oppenheimer of The Miami Herald, begrudgingly acknowledged the autonomy referendum’s illegality. Yet Oppenheimer and others replayed the story of a radical ethnic populist seeking to “impose” a “radical” agenda against reasonable democratic federalists with moderate demands. And despite a bit of insightful reporting on political complexity in Santa Cruz, Monte Reel of The Washington Post replicated the notion that the new constitution provoked violence and excluded the opposition (not true), while the autonomy referendum was staged in the pursuit of dialogue (though business leaders have long relied on violence to silence local dissent). The Post’s editorial page, as with The Miami Herald’s, furthered the misrepresentation, painting the autonomy statutes as seeking something along the lines of U.S. states’ rights.

The autonomy statutes in fact claim much more, including draconian rights to control internal migration and ascribe differential kinds of citizenship. This radical federalism would strip virtually all power from the central government through near-sovereign control over security forces, schools, land, natural resources, and contracts with multinational firms. In terms of the regional distribution of gas monies, no reporter actually investigated the existing pattern of gas revenue distribution—which is already highly skewed in favor of producing departments like Santa Cruz and Tarija. The latter, for instance, received $321 per capita from gas in 2006, while poor Potosí got $36. As scholars of natural-resource booms note—and even the World Bank acknowledges—this maldistribution reinforces regional inequality and pours monies into departmental treasuries with little capacity to spend or invest these revenues.2 Yet reporters invariably represent the MAS constitution as seeking to unfairly take revenues and rights away from regions while the autonomy statutes are portrayed as a legitimate attempt by beleaguered departments to gain a fair share.

This trope of unjust concessions to the masses, coupled with fears of creeping “Chavismo” in Bolivia, may partly explain Romero’s New York Times profile of Montanan cattle rancher Ron Larsen, the owner since 1969 of a sprawling tract of land in Santa Cruz. While the article paints a picture of hard-working landowners facing the loss of their land to the undeserving poor, Larsen’s claims to the land are legally questionable, based in part on titles handed out under military dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s, as with much speculative landholding in eastern Bolivia. In all cases, Guaraní and other Bolivian indigenous and peasant farmers have been pursuing the restoration of their ancestral territories or productive land since the 1980s. The struggle did not begin with the MAS and bears little resemblance to events in Venezuela.

The staging of the next referendum in August, a recall vote on Morales and all the departmental governors, will likely play in favor of the MAS. It is also likely that reporting will continue to distort what is clear: that democracy in Bolivia is threatened not by ethnic populism, but by the destabilizing efforts of an anti-democratic regionalism that seeks to insulate regions from the national project, much like a large-scale suburban gated community.

Bret Gustafson teaches anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of New Languages of the State: Indigenous Resurgence and the Politics of Knowledge in Bolivia (Duke University Press, forthcoming). Research assistance: Doc Billingsley and Marly Cardona.

1. The Associated Press: Harold Olmos, “Troops, Residents Fight for Control of Bolivia’s Busiest Airport,” October 19, 2007; Frank Bajak, “AP Interview: Bolivian President Says Rich Nations Must Pay for Damage to Third World,” November 3, 2007; Carlos Valdez, “Tensions Rise in Bolivia With Dueling Rallies,” December 16, 2007. Los Angeles Times: Patrick McDonnell, “Che’s Legacy Looms Larger Than Ever,” October 8, 2007; Patrick McDonnell, “Dueling Rallies Spotlight Deep Split in Bolivia,” December 16, 2007; Patrick McDonnell, “The Bolivia of Morales Is a ‘Land Divided,’ ” December 28, 2007; Oscar Ordoñez and Patrick McDonnell, “Capital War Is Bolivia’s Latest Battle,” August 5, 2007. The Miami Herald: Boris Heger and Jack Chang, “Autonomy for Bolivian Province Shows Promise,” May 6, 2008; Andres Oppenheimer, “Autonomy Vote Will Not Likely Lead to Bolivian Split,” May 1, 2008; “Editorial: Morales, Opponents Head for a Showdown,” December 14, 2007; Tyler Bridges, “In Bolivia, Controversy Rages Over Capital Site,” September 10, 2007; Tyler Bridges, “Interview: Morales: ‘Job Is to Take Care of the Poor,’ ” February 19, 2007; Tyler Bridges, “Morales Still Popular in a Divided Bolivia,” January 23, 2007. The New York Times: Simon Romero, “American Rancher Resists Land Reform Plans in Bolivia,” May 9, 2008; Simon Romero, “Clashes in Bolivia on Vote Over More Autonomy,” May 5, 2008; Simon Romero, “Bolivia’s Leader Says State’s Disputes Can Be Resolved,” December 20, 2007; Simon Romero, “Bolivians Now Hear Ominous Tones in Call to Arms,” December 15, 2007; Simon Romero, “Bolivia Leader Is Mobilizing Armed Forces,” December 10, 2007; Editorial, “Authoritarians in the Andes,” December 8, 2007. The Washington Post: Editorial, “Bolivia’s Rift,” May 6, 2008; Monte Reel, “State Autonomy Vote May Reshape Bolivia,” May 4, 2008; Editorial, “Crackup in Bolivia? Evo Morales’ Attempt to Push Through a Constitutional Rewrite Threatens to Split the Country,” December 14, 2007; Peter Goodman, “Populism for a Price,” August 3, 2007; Dan Keane, “Civil War Talk Stokes Bolivian Fears,” September 30, 2007. The Washington Times: Martin Arostegui, “Rivalries Split Indian Coalition; Some Join Anti-Morales Strike,” August 30, 2007.

2. According to a World Bank report, “There are justifiable reasons to believe that a large part of [gas] rents (around 90% based on international experience) should ‘belong’ to the central government instead of the prefectures. The first reason is equality.” “Hacia un nuevo contrato social: opciones para la asamblea constituyente,” 2007, p. 54. Electronic document available at


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