Bolivia: Exploiting the TIPNIS Conflict

A recent protest in Washington, D.C. against the TIPNIS highway in Bolivia serves as a reminder of how conservative forces are exploiting the TIPNIS conflict to undermine President Evo Morales’s leftist government. For the most part, though, the anti-highway movement is not so much against the government as it is for a recovery and revitalization of Bolivia’s “process of change.”
Emily Achtenberg 10/7/2011

Last week the protest against Bolivia’s TIPNIS highway reached Washington, D. C., with a small but boisterous demonstration of some 100 people in front of the White House. But upon closer examination, these folks seemed less concerned with protecting the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory than with insulting438 D.C. demonstration. Credit: EJU-TV, Steven Granshaw. and attacking President Evo Morales—as a dictator, an assassin, and a narco-trafficker, according to their signs. In addition to demanding a halt to “Evo’s cocaine highway,” the protesters called for Morales’ resignation and for swift UN and OAS intervention against MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) government officials for recent acts of police brutality against the TIPNIS marchers.

According to an observer, these protest leaders are well known in the Bolivian emigrant community, based in Virginia, as opponents of the MAS from Santa Cruz, stronghold of Bolivia’s conservative economic elite. The incident serves as a reminder of the extent to which reactionary and anti-government forces, both inside and outside Bolivia, are exploiting the TIPNIS conflict for their own political ends. As Morales has repeatedly emphasized, conservative groups that just a few years ago brought the country to the brink of a civil coup over their opposition to indigenous land rights are now “TIPNIStas,” ardently championing the cause of environmental protection and defending indigenous communities.

But Morales goes a step further, tarnishing the entire anti-highway movement as a partisan political protest in order to undermine its legitimate concerns. To an extent, he is exploiting the mixed messages that urban supporters of the TIPNIS march sometimes convey.

For example, at a recent student mobilization I witnessed in Cochabamba, my Bolivian friend—a disillusioned MAS supporter--was dismayed by the popular chant: “Evo decia/ que todo cambiaria/ mentira, mentira/ la misma porqueria!” (“Evo said/ everything would change/ lies, lies/ it’s the same bullshit!”) "But it's not the same!" she protested.440 Student mobilization, Cochabamba. Credit: Ben Achtenberg She complained to the student leaders that this inflammatory rhetoric not only plays into the hands of the right, but strengthens the government’s ability to discredit the movement.

Slogans and right-wing opportunists aside, while the TIPNIS conflict—and especially, last week’s brutal repression of the marchers—has severely damaged Morales’ credibility, the growing anti-highway mobilization appears to be a movement that is not so much against the MAS government as it is for recovery of the “process of change.” As Kevin Young notes in a thoughtful ZSpace commentary, no major union or popular organization on the left has called for Morales’ resignation. Bolivian social movements have a sophisticated, and healthy, capacity to critique and defend the government at the same time.

Most TIPNIS protest groups, Young argues, still view Morales as a far better political option than either his neoliberal predecessors or his current neoliberal opponents, though they also believe that Bolivians deserve a better deal. Far from allying or sympathizing with the right, they see Morales as the best defense against conservative interests (inside and outside Bolivia) that are seeking to undermine the process of change.

In fact, says Young, much of the popular anger against Morales around the TIPNIS issue derives from the sense that his betrayal of indigenous rights and environmental justice (and, I would add, his promotion of conflict between campesino and indigenous groups) is empowering the right by alienating key popular constituencies. This was the message conveyed by ex-Defense Minister Cecilia Chacón in her resignation statement, and by Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the UN, in his recent letter urging Morales to abandon the TIPNIS highway. Solón emphasizes the importance of revitalizing the process of change to counteract conservative forces. 441 TIPNIS marchers near Palos Blancos. Credit: La Razón.“To block the right, which wants to take advantage of the protest in order to return to the past,” he warns, “we must be more vigilant than ever in defense of human rights, the rights of indigenous people, and the rights of Mother Earth.”

Within the expanding and increasingly heterogeneous anti-highway movement, the issue of political opportunism appears to be a growing source of tension. At their ongoing vigil in La Paz in solidarity with the TIPNIS marchers, women from the highlands indigenous organization CONAMAQ have explicitly repudiated participation by all political parties (on both the left and right). As the TIPNIS conflict continues to unfold, it’s an issue that could have significant bearing on Bolivia’s political future. 

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